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Health care for Vermont farm workers?

A bill before the Vermont legislature would grant basic healthcare services to the state's growing population of undocumented (aka illegal) workers. The bill is not designed to include migrant laborers in the Catamount Health program that covers the uninsured, but instead to use state funds to reimburse doctors and clinics for providing basic preventative care. Vermont is not the only state proposing legislation relating to legal/illegal immigrants and immigration. As of November 2007, state legislators introduced 1,562 such bills, up from 570 in 2006. Of the 147 bills introduced in 32 states, only 16 laws were enacted in 11 states. A series of laws passed in Illinois, for example, created a prescription drug program for undocumented workers whose immigration status makes them ineligible for need-based federal assistance and provided nearly $400,000 for community and migrant health centers to expand capacity and develop additional sites. Most of the estimated 2,500 migrant laborers in Vermont are from Mexico and work on dairy farms in Franklin and Addison counties, although others are also employed in the local food-service and construction industries. The bill before the Vermont legislature was introduced by Addison County State Sen. Claire Ayer (D). Ayer claims that "the jobs that very often illegal migrant workers have are jobs that Vermonters don't want. According to a recent Vermont Public Radio interview Ayer said, it isn't that they're displacing people, and that eventually we'll take back the jobs. People don't want them. So we need them to keep our dairy economy, our ski economy, and in some cases our food service economy going. We need them. It's a fact of life, and we need to take care of them, too." The bill is still in the early stages of review and Ayer said that the bill is likely to change as it moves through the legislative process. A group of UVM medical students started a mobile health clinic for farm workers in 2006. Luz Felix-Marquez, a medical student who helped form the group, told VPR that most people are reluctant to see a doctor in all but the most serious emergencies. "It's not that they don't realize that that they're sick. It's just that whatever they're experiencing isn't impeding their work. And until it impedes their work, that's when they're going to access care," she said during the VPR interview. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) recently held two days of meetings with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farm workers in Florida who gained prominence taking on Burger King for a one penny per pound wage increase for tomato pickers. The meetings came just one day after a federal grand jury indicted six people for enslaving farm workers in that region. "No worker in America should be treated the way tomato pickers in Florida are treated. The norm is a disaster, and slavery is the extreme," Sanders said.

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