(CNSNews.com) - Asked Thursday if the Affordable Care Act will help "undocumented individuals," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said no -- and that's why immigration reform is so important:
"Well, the (Obamacare) bill is crafted in such a way that those who are undocumented will not have access to the tax credits or shopping in the (health insurance) marketplace. That has been limited, which is, frankly, why -- another very keen reason why we need comprehensive immigration reform," Sebelius told a gathering of Latinos in Philadelphia.
The remark drew applause at the Obamacare event hosted by Congreso, a Latino community service group.
"Unfortunately, you can't fix -- we won't fix the immigration system, unfortunately, through the health care bill, but I think having the immigration bill that passed the Senate, pass the House, would be a huge step," Sebelius added.
The Senate-passed immigration bill would put some 11 million illegal aliens on a path to eventual citizenship, first by giving them provisional legal status. House Republicans say border security must come first, and they plan to draft their own bill.
Sebelius recommended that illegal aliens continue to get medical treatment at community health centers, where they will find federally funded, "culturally competent" health care providers "who actually speak the language and can reach out to a neighborhood."
She also noted that the Obama administration has doubled the size of the Public Health Service Corps -- "which, to me, is one of the great, well-kept secrets in America. It's like the Peace Corps for health workers," she said.
"If you agree to serve in an underserved area, the federal government helps pay off the student loans and debt that a lot of health professionals carry. And what we find is that when people actually take up service in the National Health Service Corps, they stay in the communities that they are serving long beyond their assignments. So there will be continued access for undocumented," Sebelius promised.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who joined Sebelius at the event, also addressed the issue of "dealing with folks who may not have all their documentation in order."
And just as Sebelius did, Nutter indicated that illegal aliens and other disadvantaged people already have access to health care in this country.
Nutter said the City of Philadelphia -- "even through the worst of the recession, we did everything we possibly could to minimize any negative impact on our health centers. We have eight health centers across the City of Philadelphia, and they were last, last, last on any list to get any reductions, although we made cuts all over the city government." He said he is committed to maintaining that funding.
Nutter also said he signed an executive order directing city government workers "that you cannot deny someone service...just because you may be in an undocumented status."
"And I signed that executive order specifically to make sure that while folks are trying to deal with their paperwork and dealing with immigration and all those folks over there at the federal side, that's not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to provide service. Anyone who shows up, who's in this city -- (applause) -- and so folks -- and so people should continue to come, certainly, to our health centers."
The mayor said his city is "doing our best in trying to provide services to folks, notwithstanding any language challenges, documentation status. If you are here, it is our job to try to provide the best, high-quality service and care that we can as a local government. That's our commitment."
What Obamacare 'really is about'
According to Sebelius, "The Affordable Care Act "really is about a portion of the population (15 percent, she estimated) who is either uninsured or underinsured or in and out of the marketplaces."
She said "the other 85 percent of people" already have relatively affordable coverage, which "has gotten stronger" because of various Obamacare requirements.
"Starting October 1st of this year...for about 15 percent of Americans who don't have health coverage at all, they will have some new opportunities. They will have a new marketplace available to them, and because they don't have an employer paying a share of the coverage, they have some help from the federal government."
She estimated that Latinos comprise about 25 percent of the individuals eligible for new coverage options.