US report - illegal immigrants not a burden to health care system

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A new report released last month in the United States concludes that illegal immigrants do not pose a disproportionate burden upon the U.S. health care system, contrary to increasingly strong rhetoric on the subject over the past two years.

In response to extremely heated political debate over immigration reform, the study was conducted to determine if illegal immigrants were, in fact, contributing to the decline of U.S. health care services.

Adult illegal immigrants tend to be younger and healthier than their legal-resident counterparts, resulting in relatively low use of health care services, according to the study. This directly contradicts many assertions repeatedly made by right-wing politicians and pundits in a strong push to impose harsh immigration reform efforts through various American governmental bodies.

Undocumented adults account for about $6.4 billion a year in national health care expenses, $1.1 billion of which is paid from public funds, according to the study by the Rand Corp., a conservative-leaning think tank. The publicly funded portion represents 1.25% of the total $88 billion in government funds spent on health care for adults other than seniors during 2000.

For comparison, the total cost of upgrades to the wall being constructed on the Mexico-United States border is currently expected to be between $30 and $36 billion and take most of the next decade.

The calculation of the cost of financing illegal immigrant health care was made by extrapolating data collected in 2000 and 2001 for a study of about 2,400 immigrants in Los Angeles County. The study did not account for what portion of the health services received that illegal immigrants paid for. Estimating the amount of health care money spent on undocumented immigrants is difficult because federal law prohibits hospital staff from asking a patient's immigration status.

Rand researchers chose to rely on the 5-year-old Los Angeles study because it contained detailed information on participants' legal or visa status, along with their health status, how much health care they used and whether they had any insurance coverage.

Of the 664 illegal immigrants in the study, 68% were uninsured. Only 19% had a chronic medical condition, compared with 38 percent of American-born adults, the study reported. About 58% of illegal immigrants reported visiting a doctor in the previous year, while 80% of adults born in the country had seen a physician.

About 11% of undocumented immigrants in the study had been hospitalized in the prior year, compared with 13% of the native-born population. Smith said undocumented women have relatively high rates of hospitalization due to childbirth.

"The public cost of immigration is not in health care," said James Smith, a senior economist at Rand and one of the study's authors. In context, the quote was specifically referring to illegal immigration in the U.S., especially of Latino immigrants from Central America and Mexico.

Health care providers that focus on low-income and immigrant populations agreed with the study's findings.

"Immigrants in general tend to be young, working people and they tend to be healthy," said Ralph Silber, executive director of the Alameda Health Consortium, an association of eight nonprofit community health centers. "People who are incredibly sick tend not to be crossing borders, and certainly not crossing borders illegally."

Still, Silber said, he's concerned about undocumented adults who avoid routine health care because of the cost or fear that their status may be discovered.

Illegal immigrants might contribute to crowded emergency rooms and hospitals' financial losses, but they are not the driving factor, said Jan Emerson, spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association.

"It is unfair for the public to place the blame for all of societal ills -- in this case, hospital ills -- on undocumented or illegal immigrants," she said, adding that the vast majority of the country's 46 million uninsured people are native-born or legal residents. "If we were to resolve the issue, we still have major problems with our health care system."

Health care reform is at least as controversial as immigration reform in the United States. For more than two decades there has been a push to make a universal health care system of some sort, similar to that enjoyed in Canada and the United Kingdom.

It is estimated that approximately 43 to 48 million Americans are currently without insurance, something that is increasingly being viewed as a crisis. Many special interests are pushing their personal rhetoric to explain the situation or to place blame, making credible, factual studies difficult to come by.


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