Members of the state's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus demanded Monday that funding for a Medicaid program that Gov. Kathy Hochul slashed in her budget proposal be restored — joining ongoing backlash against the total $1.2 billion Medicaid cuts in the executive's $233 billion spending plan.

Hochul's budget removes $111 million for the Medicaid Quality Incentive Program (QIP), which gives providers incentives to make improvements that ease health disparities for low-income New Yorkers and people of color who need it most.

The QIP serves as a deferred payment program for health providers when they do things to close gaps in care for patients and improve access, including offering evening hours, outreach programs or mental health or cancer screenings.

"All these things cost money, and that money does not come from reimbursement rates," said Dr. Juan Espinoza, president and medical director at Brentwood Pediatric & Adolescent Associates PC. "...The QIP can help close that gap and help make it affordable to provide the care that they need."

The caucus plans to lead fight for the Medicaid Quality Incentive Program funding be restored, and increased to $268 million. It was funded at $111 million in Fiscal Year 2021 and 2022, increasing to $189 million in FY 2023 and back to $111 million last year, according to the state Budget Division. Hochul proposed the program get the axe, or $0 in state funding in the next budget due April 1.

"If we cut the QIP program, we will essentially be creating a disparity and creating a gap for the patients to have access to these services and to be able to use the delivery system the way it's meant to," Espinoza said.

Health providers rallied with caucus members in the Capitol on Monday, and said the governor is known to cut the program and use it as a bargaining chip during budget negotiations with the Legislature — especially under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

Caucus members argue the program represents a commitment to addressing health equity and ensuring the 5 million New Yorkers on Medicaid have access to the best quality care.

"I'm really exhausted of the budget dance; I think a lot of us thought those days were over," said Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, a Democrat from Queens. "It's even more exhausting when a proposal comes out, or a budget, and it is the items that impact the communities of color the most that are often cut. I don't know the science behind it, I frankly don't care about it, I just want to figure out, how do we make sure that our communities are not left to be the ones that help the math make sense — the ones that carry the burden?"

Diane Mbombo-Tite, a naturalized U.S. citizen who came to Albany from the Democratic Republic of Congo, says the program saved her life when she arrived in the U.S. very pregnant, homeless and with a toddler.

She added she would likely still be homeless without the assistance she received.

"I was in the streets... I am definitely a testament to the support of this program," Mbombo-Tite said. "I didn't have health insurance, I didn't have food. The help that I got from the QI was like I found shelter, and I got clothing, I got food, I got help with a lawyer to help me file my asylum paperwork for free ... To me, this is definitely the reason why I am able to thrive today and be able to give back to my community."

Caucus chair Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages said the program funds nontraditional methods to get the neediest people engaged in the health care system. 

At the requested $268 million, Solages said the program makes up about 0.3% of the state's total $100 billion Medicaid budget. Properly funding the incentives connects low-income New Yorkers to health care and reduces emergency room visits, which would help save skyrocketing Medicaid spending in the longrun, the assemblywoman said.

"We're talking about providing preventative care — using a program that we should be uplifting and highlight," said Solages, a Democrat from Elmont. "...Let's look at the smart ways of saving Medicaid dollars and trying to wrap it back into the overall savings. I know that there's been issues and concerns, but we have to talk about and support smart programs."

The push for the program in the budget is nothing new, but comes as tens of thousands of asylum seekers from the Southern Border remain in New York City's care, and show no signs of stopping in traveling to the state.

"We need to really push the message that... we are a welcoming state, and as long as people are here and abiding by laws that we can become a part of the fabric," Solages said.

It's part of a tense national conversation as federal lawmakers work to reach a deal on border and immigration reform. 

At Monday's Conservative Party Conference in Albany, Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said he expects the immigration issue will impact Democrats' success in New York this year's elections.

Ortt blasted Hochul for blaming the crisis on Republicans while simultaneously calling for a group of asylum seekers who assaulted city police officers last week to be deported.

"If the governor wants them deported, there's things she can do to take action," Ortt said. "Until she does that, she owns this crisis. Her and Mayor Adams own this crisis. Her and Mayor Adams and President Biden own this crisis. And every single New Yorker and every American know it."

But Solages said most of the more than 172,000 migrants who recently arrived in New York are peaceful and looking to work.

"We don't condone violence, I think, on anyone and especially on our police officers, and I think that they should feel the full brunt of the law," Solages said. "But the vast majority of those coming here are individuals that can uplift our city. We might have the next Einstein, we might have the next Beethoven that's sitting right now at Roosevelt Hotel. We should give them an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to grow the fabric and do what they want to do — they want to work. So we should find an opportunity for them to work."