'A Voice for Coverage' ABA journal publishes law student's piece on health care for immigrants


By Wayne Peal
Legal News

Touching not one hot button issue, but two, it is the kind of report guaranteed to draw attention.

That is why metro Detroit law student Kelly Steffens’s piece on health care for immigrants earned a place in the December issue of “The Health Lawyer,” a publication of the American Bar Association Health Law Section.

Not bad for someone who hasn’t yet passed the bar.

Steffens was both surprised and thrilled to have had the article she co-authored, “Immigrants and Health Care: A Voice for Coverage,” included in the prestigious bi-monthly publication. The issue is close to her heart.

“Immigration law is an area of interest for me,” said Steffens, who majored in Latin American studies as a Michigan State University undergraduate.

Studies abroad in Argentina and the Dominican Republic heightened her awareness of immigration issues. Yet her passion for the plight of immigrant workers goes back even further.

“I grew up in Romeo (Mich.), a small farming community and there was always a large immigrant community there which worked on the farms,” Steffens said.  “I’d have to say my interest probably began there.”

The article began as an assignment from Dave Haron, her professor at Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills and ended up utilizing his skills as well as those of a member of his law firm.

“In our class, we were tackling hot button issues, and immigration and health care were two of the biggest,” said Haron, a partner in the Troy law firm of Frank Haron & Weiner.

The assignment, Haron noted, came before President Obama’s landmark health care plan was proposed.

“We started before President Obama was even president,” he said.
  The article argues for more readily available health care for America’s legal immigrants, avoiding the more incendiary debate surrounding those who come here illegally.

“That, we felt, was another issue for another time,” said Mercedes Varasteh Dordeski, a member of the law firm and co-author of the article with Haron and Steffens.

“Our focus was on those who come here legally, but there are misconceptions even with those immigrants,” she said. “We wanted to put an end to the misconception that immigrants are coming here to get health care when the opposite is true.”

Haron put his mentorship skills into overdrive in overseeing the project while Varasteh Dordeski used skills she first developed as a collegiate and freelance journalist to fine tune the piece for publication. All said they learned something from the project.

Recent immigrants in particular, “still have a lot of difficulty when it comes to obtaining health care,” Haron said. “In some cases, they had better health care in their own counties before they came here.”

In part that’s because welfare reform, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, subjects many immigrants to a 5-year waiting period for health care services.

The problems uninsured immigrants face – and create – are the same as those for U.S. citizens without health care. Too often, the authors said, immigrants require costly emergency room treatments, or extended hospital stays, for illnesses which could have been prevented if treated earlier.

“We need for people to get care when they need it rather than to have to fix a bigger problem down the road,” Varasteh Dordeski said.

While some states have stepped in to offer health care assistance, the authors said, such help has generally been limited to children or offered only under extremely narrow qualifications. A fundamental shift in health care philosophy is needed, Haron added.

“We ought to be concerned about what we’re providing and not who is paying,” he said.
Hostility toward all immigrants rises in times of economic hardship, Haron said. When it comes to health care, the results can be devastating for the general population.

“One hundred years ago, there were plagues which swept through the immigrant community and later the community at large because those who came here weren’t able to get adequate health care,” Haron said.  “As society advanced, that became less of a problem.”

Adding irony to the debate, the authors found that roughly 25 percent of America’s health care professionals are themselves immigrants.

“It was really surprising to find that out,” Steffens said. “It shows, again, that there’s a difference between health care reality and perceptions.”

While California, New York, Florida and Texas remain the states with the largest immigrant populations, immigrants continue to make their presence felt in Michigan.

Slightly fewer than 5 percent of all Michigan residents are foreign born according to a 2007 report by the Center for Immigration Studies. That figures makes Michigan 14th of the 50 states in terms of its immigrant population.

Gov. Rick Snyder took many people by surprise in his inaugural State of the State Address in when he linked expanded immigration to Michigan’s economic turnaround.

The authors noted there is a gap between immigrants already here and the kind of technologically skilled “entrepreneurial immigrants” Snyder appears to seek.

“What we’re seeing is that many of today’s immigrants have fewer skills and are poorer than some of their immediate predecessors,” Haron said.

Even though the future of health care reform is far from certain, the authors say society ignored the needs of immigrants at its peril.

“We’re not advocating the Medicaid system be expanded for all immigrants. But as programs are continually evolving, it’s arbitrary to say that just because you’re not a citizen you don’t get health care.”

For all the authors, the question is simple.

“It’s better in the long run for the non-immigrant population to have immigrants receive health care,” Haron said.

For Steffens, the article is the first step in what could prove to be a career-long involvement in immigration law. But there are a few other more immediate priorities.

“I’m taking the bar in February,” she said. “Then, I’ll be sending out resumes.”