Health Departments Reduce Services to Undocumented, Uninsured

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As money and budgeting are tight the local health departments are forced to reduce health care services for the undocumented immigrants who are also without health insurance coverage.

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The AP/Austin American-Statesman on Sunday examined how some community health clinics are cutting services for undocumented immigrants as the economic recession continues. According to the AP/American-Statesman, health officials and immigrant advocates say they do not know how many local health systems provide primary care for undocumented immigrants. Hospitals and clinics usually do not ask about a patient's immigration status "in part because treating chronic conditions ... keeps patients from emergency room visits that are far less effective and more expensive," the AP/American-Statesman reports. According to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, about 59% of the 11.9 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are uninsured, which accounts for about 15% of the nearly 47 million U.S. residents without health insurance.

Sonal Ambegaokar, a health policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, said that cuts to local health systems could have significant consequences for the greater population. Ambegaokar said, "Cutting care, you save $100 today, but you may end [up] spending $500 tomorrow when that person shows up in the emergency room because you didn't provide them with basic medication," adding, "It's shortsighted."

On Tuesday, officials in Contra Costa County, Calif., will vote on a plan that would eliminate health care services for about 5,000 undocumented immigrants. Robert Pestronk, executive director of National Association of County and City Health Officials, said, "The general situation [in Contra Costa County] is being faced by nearly every health department across the country, and if not right now, shortly." Pestronk said that the economic recession is making it more difficult for local health systems to provide adequate care to the growing number of uninsured residents who have lost their jobs and health care coverage benefits. In January, a survey by NACCHO found that more than half of local health departments nationwide already had eliminated or lost staff positions in 2008, and about one-third of the departments expected to implement staff reductions this year (Barbassa, AP/Austin American-Statesman, 3/15).

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