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Examining Health Care Coverage Of Undocumented Immigrants

Armen Hareyan's picture

As the debatecontinues over the residency status of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., some"of the most heated arguments on the issue focus on health care" andwhether such immigrants should be eligible for benefits, USA Today reports. According to USA Today,"While state governments, Congress, the Bush administration andpresidential candidates wrestle with how to provide health coverage touninsured" U.S. residents, undocumented immigrants "rely on apatchwork of federally funded community health centers" and in many cases"free prescription samples or over-the-counter drugs." Undocumentedimmigrants are eligible for Medicaid coverage in emergencies but must payout-of-pocket for nonemergency care and are ineligible for most publicbenefits.

For many undocumented immigrants, "the fear of deportation outweighs thepain of illness or injury, so they live with their afflictions ... until theirhealth problems become critical," which "makes things worse -- forthem, for hospitals that eventually treat them and for taxpayers who ultimatelyfoot the bill."

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The health care costs associated with treating undocumented immigrants areunclear because hospitals and community health centers do not ask patientsabout their legal status. According to USA Today, a recent Congressional Budget Office report found that at the state and local level, undocumented immigrantscost more in public services such as education and health care than they pay intaxes. A 2004 study by the Federation for American ImmigrationReform estimatedthat undocumented immigrants in Californiacost the state $1.4 billion annually; similar studies in Coloradoand Minnesotafound that undocumented immigrants in 2005 cost the states $31 million and $17million, respectively.

According to estimates by the Pew HispanicCenter, 59% of theundocumented immigrants in the U.S.are uninsured, compared with 25% of documented immigrants and 14% of U.S. citizens.Undocumented immigrants account for about 15% of the nation's uninsuredpopulation, as well as for about 30% of the increase since 1980, USAToday reports. According to USA Today, proposals by leadingDemocratic presidential candidates likely would "mean little change inundocumented immigrants' health care status" because the proposals wouldnot provide coverage for them (Wolf, USA Today, 1/22).

Reprintedwith permission from kaisernetwork.org. You can view the entire Kaiser Weekly Health Disparities Report, search the archives, and sign upfor email delivery at kaisernetwork.org/email . The Kaiser Weekly HealthDisparities Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, a free service of TheHenry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.