Focusing on Healthcare Costs of Illegal Immigrants Draws Attention Away from the Real Problem
Too many illegal immigrants are overwhelming the healthcare system and driving up health insurance costs. That’s the latest sound bite in the war of words over immigration reform. In a recent poll, a majority of the respondents thought that illegal immigrants were responsible for 50 percent or more of the uninsured treated in Southern California hospitals. But is that really the case?
While it is true that providing treatment to undocumented immigrants creates a drain on hospital resources, the question is: How much of the problem can reasonably be attributed to the undocumented? And if we solved the problem of illegal immigration tomorrow — which we won’t — would health care costs return to “reasonable” levels?
Illegal immigrants are responsible for roughly 20 percent of the $2 billion in unreimbursed care that Southern California hospitals deliver each year. Even if you consider that factor, you have to conclude that it’s the larger problem of just simply having so many uninsured patients that is a key driver of rising hospital costs.
In order to receive federal Medicare and Medicaid payments, a hospital must agree to treat and stabilize everybody who shows up to a hospital ER regardless of their ability to pay or their immigration status. That means undocumented immigrants who show up at the emergency room will receive treatment regardless of their immigration status or whether they’re insured. But so will legal immigrants, naturalized citizens and native-born Americans.
It is a matter of law that these people receive treatment. Indeed, we may have an ethical responsibility to do so as well. The problem is that most hospitals in California end up being paid for only about 5 percent of the medical care given to uninsured patients. And that leads to the question: So, who’s going to pick up the tab?
In the absence of strong political leadership on the question of insuring the uninsured, the answer, inevitably, is that hospitals and those patients with insurance, as well as those uninsured who do pay, will end up paying for those who seek care without insurance — regardless of whether they are here legally or not.