Wisconsin Shows How States Can Mitigate the Downside of New Puerto Rico Law

By Jon Peacock, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families

It isn’t often that state policymakers have to make program changes and policy choices because of a law passed in another state or territory of the U.S.  Thus, it came as a big surprise to learn that a law enacted in Puerto Rico forces states to make a choice about how they administer public benefit programs, including Medicaid and CHIP.    

The Puerto Rico law invalidates all certified copies of birth certificates issued by the Puerto Rico Health Department before July 1, 2010. The law was adopted by the commonwealth last year after it was informed that stolen birth certificates were being used fraudulently. Beginning on October 1, 2010, states may no longer use those birth certificates to document citizenship to identity those eligible for public benefit programs.  The new law was initially scheduled to take effect on July 1, but states and program applicants have been given three additional months to prepare for the change.

The older certified copies will not be valid for new applications starting October 1, but states have the option of not requiring Puerto Ricans who are already enrolled to obtain a new birth certificate when they come up for their annual review of eligibility.  Additional information on the new law, as well as application forms for new copies of birth certificates, can be found here.

Wisconsin recently became one of the first states to tackle this issue:  the state decided not to make current program participants obtain new copies of their birth certificates. (See Operations Memos # 10-39.) The WI Department of Health Services (DHS) decided that requiring all enrolled Puerto Ricans to obtain new birth certificates would be a burden for those individuals and wouldn’t be a cost-effective use of time for caseworkers.  

Wisconsin’s BadgerCare Plus program has been extremely effective in giving nearly all Wisconsin children access to quality affordable health insurance, and in making enrollment and renewals easier for eligible families.  However, Wisconsin still has room for improvement in streamlining renewals, and DHS is working toward that goal.  The department’s choice not to require new birth certificates for already-enrolled Puerto Ricans prevents what could have been a setback to Wisconsin’s efforts to reduce churning among program participants.

For new Puerto Rican applicants, states can mitigate the potential burden of the law by taking advantage of the CHIPRA option to use Social Security numbers for automated verification of citizenship and identity.  Although Wisconsin does not currently employ that option, DHS is preparing to put it in place this fall–and many states are already up and running with it.    

There is no avoiding the fact that the Puerto Rico law will affect Medicaid and CHIP programs across the U.S and is likely to delay some applications.  However, the choices made in Wisconsin illustrate that states can minimize the additional burdens for program applicants, participants and caseworkers.  Especially when budgets are tight, smart decisions that avoid additional red tape can pay off for both state budgets and uninsured kids.

The views expressed by Guest Bloggers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Children and Families.