Edith Doh-Taka moved from Cameroon to the United States 10 years ago seeking political asylum. She trained to became a nurse in Washington DC and is now living in Denver. She was living an immigrant American dream until she developed fibroids. Doh-Taka had surgery and had to stop working. Now, she can’t find an insurance company that will cover her.
“Each insurance (company) that I called was looking at what pre-existing conditions have you been having. It would be so expensive for me to pay. Without working, you cannot pay.”
Doh-Taka is in a bind many refugees and asylees face – living in a new country without health insurance. That is slated to change soon. Refugees, as legal immigrants, are eligible for the same protections and benefits as US citizens under the Affordable Care Act. Many of the provisions of the Act take effect in 2014, including a rule that insurance companies cannot deny or charge higher premiums based on pre-existing conditions.
Doh-Taka’s story isn’t unique, nor is it special to immigrants, refugees, or asylees. But navigating the healthcare system is especially difficult for refugees, who often have a superficial understanding of American culture, institutions, and English.
“The Affordable Care Act is going to really help people understand and utilize the healthcare system that’s available for them,” said Kit Taintor, the executive director at the Colorado African Organization, a group that helps African immigrants build new lives.
Taintor said most African immigrants simply avoid the doctor. “Why would you go to the doctor if you’re not feeling well to find out that you have an illness that you’re going to have to pay for?”
Right now, Taintor said healthcare for refugees is a “cumbersome” process.
“For the first 90 days they get refugee medical assistance, and then they switch over to Medicaid, which requires recertification of forms and filling out all of these things. So they tend to let Medicaid lapse, even if they’re eligible for it. So I think that what this (The Affordable Care Act) is going to allow is for people to really extend what they think healthcare is and how it can support them and their families.”
The African refugees I met in Denver didn’t have the greatest understanding of the nuances of healthcare reform, but all strongly support it. And from my totally unscientific polling, nearly all support President Obama. In Colorado, there are an estimated 35,000 African immigrants and refugees; precise data aren’t available. In a tightly contested election, could this small group like this give the president enough votes to take the state?
“I doubt that’s a large enough community to make a really substantial impact on the election,” said Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. “But given how close this election is likely to be, almost any constituency of any size could end up being pivotal.”
One problem for the president: Those still legally classified as refugees, by definition, can’t vote.
The ones I met were all striving to improve their English and study for the citizenship exam so they could become citizens. I asked Ismail Ahmed, a refugee from Sudan, why he wants to vote. His English was pretty basic: “Healthcare, I like that.”