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Intersecting Issues: Immigration Reform and Health Care Reform

Posted Jan 14 2010 12:00am


The LA Times reported this past week that the pending health care reform would negatively affect rather than improve the health of California’s citizens.  Why would this be the case?  Nearly thirty percent of the state’s population consists of immigrants.  In L.A. County itself, there are more uninsured residents than any other U.S. county; as the L.A. Times calculates, the majority of that uninsured population are likely immigrants:

It’s a safe bet that the majority of those people are immigrants, because health officials say that 40% of all the patients treated at county hospitals are undocumented. In recognition of that fact and of the hospitals’ legal and ethical responsibilities to treat the uninsured ill and injured — regardless of their immigration status — Washington currently subsidizes their care at facilities, like L.A. County’s, with “disproportionate” numbers of such patients.

The House bill for health care reform would reduce the funding for such subsidies modestly, while the Senate bill would significantly decrease payments towards the subsidies.  Whatever the outcome of the compromise bill, L.A. County will be left worse off.

As we know, neither the House nor the Senate bill would cover undocumented immigrants, or allow them to receive subsidies or tax credits for purchasing insurance.  However, even if the country will not be paying for the health coverage of such immigrants, it will be and already is paying for the high costs of having immigrants treated in emergency rooms, since many hospitals, such as those mentioned in the L.A. Times piece above, treat patients regardless of their immigration status.  Hospitals that provide emergency services and participate in Medicare are required to treat all who come to them for emergency services by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act; some of the costs for the emergency care are covered through Medicaid, while others result in expenditures that the hospitals incur as debt.  The effects of the debt can result in higher hospital fees for other patientsBut greater hospital charge rates for the uninsured are a matter of contention, and tend to obscure the actual value of services rendered and unpaid for. Having said that, it is not unimaginable to think that provisions in the health care bills may actually drive up medical expenses for some segments of the population–and that such increased expenses will have significant adverse affect upon the whole.

Again, the House bill does a better job than the Senate version does at addressing the issue of immigrant health, as the House would allow for undocumented immigrants to participate in the health insurance exchange by permitting them to purchase insurance policies. While the House bill would require immigrants to pay for the policies entirely, the Senate bill does not allow for immigrants to participate whatsoever.  It is worth considering that the immigrant community consists largely of young, healthy individuals; the impact upon the risk pool of their inclusion is no small thing.

Some health care advocates believe that resolution lies in immigration reform, so that immigrants can become citizens of the United States.  An LA Times story about a UCLA study released this last week is also worth considering:

The report said that legalization, along with a program that allows for future immigration based on the labor market, would create jobs, increase wages and generate more tax revenue. Comprehensive immigration reform would add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years, according to the report.

Though many Americans seem to feel that immigrants are taking jobs away from unemployed American citizens, CNN writer Ruben Navarrette, Jr. points out that much of the labor immigrants participate in is in areas of work that Americans themselves have shunned.

Behind the politics of both health and immigration reforms lies the compelling stories of immigrants who have labored in our county and who are in desperate need of health care.  While data and numbers can show the cost-benefits of allowing immigrants to participate in health care, the issue of treating ill humans seems an ethical one– not something to be justified by statistics alone.  But at the heart of this is the simple question, is healthcare a  human right? Or is it a luxury–a “treat,” if you will,  to be dispensed according to the rules of carrots and sticks? and not just a luxury.

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