When Hurricane Sandy devastated her own home one year ago, Sara Cullinane reached out to ensure that low-income immigrant communities in New York received emergency relief and quality healthcare access through her Equal Justice Works Fellowship at Make the Road New York (MRNY). Sara’s project, sponsored by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP Foundation, allowed her to be a key player in serving the immigrant populations surrounding two of MRNY’s offices in Long Island and Staten Island.
“In the immediate aftermath of the storm, I stepped in for a few months to provide legal services for the thousands of immigrant families who faced barriers to accessing government and charitable relief,” Sara said.
Sara’s experiences on the ground helped produce the report, Unmet Needs: Hurricane Sandy and Immigrant Communities in Metro New York Region. The report illustrated that the vast majority of immigrants in the devastated areas lacked access to emergency relief. Upon the report’s publication, the New York City Mayor’s Office responded by creating a new immigrant outreach program and a housing plan for immigrant communities affected by Sandy – both of which Sara helped design. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs’ recent report on the outreach initiative revealed that 6,800 immigrant households in the disaster zone were reached by special, multilingual Immigrant Outreach Workers and connected to services.
Today, Sara continues her Fellowship project by helping immigrants navigate the New York State of Health (NYSH) – the health care insurance exchange system implemented under the federal health care reform. Sara mainly serves low income immigrants from across Latin America, providing community education and outreach, individual representation, administrative advocacy, and support for MRNY’s community organizing around access to healthcare.
“The nexus between immigration status and eligibility for health insurance under state and federal law is very complex. Undocumented immigrants are barred from receiving benefits under the Affordable Care Act, even if they want to pay the full price for insurance,” said Sara.
Sara also highlights the many challenges that immigrants face when navigating the NYSH system. “The NYSH website is only available in English. There is a widespread misconception in many immigrant communities that using public benefits or government subsidies will lead to deportation or cause difficulties for immigrants who adjust to lawful permanent resident status. The misconception comes from inaccurate information spread by lawyers, the media and others, which then becomes word of mouth advice that folks share in their communities. Additionally, it can be extremely difficult to screen an immigrant’s eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, because there are hundreds of different immigration statuses. Each state has different eligibility guidelines for different programs and subsidies, so there is a lot of misinformation on immigrant eligibility,” said Sara.
Most recently, Sara made a difference by alleviating a large portion of medical expenses for an immigrant single mother. “I want to ensure that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act is as immigrant-friendly as possible. Through direct representation and negotiations, I recently reduced my client’s unpaid medical bills from approximately $200,000 to about $150,” said Sara.
Equal Justice Works is proud of Sara’s work to support low-income, immigrant New Yorkers. Her efforts will continue to help these families access quality, affordable health care as New York moves to implement federal health care reform.
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