Fewer Health Care Options for Illegal Immigrants
ALAMO, Texas - For years, Sonia Limas would drag her daughters to the emergency room whenever they fell sick. As an illegal immigrant, she had no health insurance, and the only place she knew to seek treatment was the hospital - the most expensive setting for those covering the cost.
The family’s options improved somewhat a decade ago with the expansion of community health clinics, which offered free or low-cost care with help from the federal government. But President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul threatens to roll back some of those services if clinics and hospitals are overwhelmed with newly insured patients and can’t afford to care for as many poor families.
To be clear, Obama’s law was never intended to help Limas and an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants like her. Instead, it envisions that 32 million uninsured Americans will get access to coverage by 2019. Because that should mean fewer uninsured patients showing up at hospitals, the Obama program slashed the federal reimbursement for uncompensated care.
But in states with large illegal immigrant populations, the math may not work, especially if lawmakers don’t expand Medicaid, the joint state-federal health program for the poor and disabled.
When the reform has been fully implemented, illegal immigrants will make up the nation’s second-largest population of uninsured, or about 25 percent. The only larger group will be people who qualify for insurance but fail to enroll, according to a 2012 study by the Washington-based Urban Institute.
And since about two-thirds of illegal immigrants live in just eight states, those areas will have a disproportionate share of the uninsured to care for.
In communities "where the number of undocumented immigrants is greatest, the strain has reached the breaking point," Rich Umbdenstock, president of the American Hospital Association, wrote last year in a letter to Obama, asking him to keep in mind the uncompensated care hospitals gave to that group. "In response, many hospitals have had to curtail services, delay implementing services, or close beds."
The federal government has offered to expand Medicaid, but states must decide whether to take the deal. And in some of those eight states - including Texas, Florida and New Jersey - hospitals are scrambling to determine whether they will still have enough money to treat the remaining uninsured.
Without a Medicaid expansion, the influx of new patients and the looming cuts in federal funding could inflict "a double whammy" in Texas, said David Lopez, CEO of the Harris Health System in Houston, which spends 10 to 15 percent of its $1.2 billion annual budget to care for illegal immigrants.
Realistically, taxpayers are already paying for some of the treatment provided to illegal immigrants because hospitals are required by law to stabilize and treat any patients that arrive in an emergency room, regardless of their ability to pay. The money to cover the costs typically comes from federal, state and local taxes.
A solid accounting of money spent treating illegal immigrants is elusive because most hospitals do not ask for immigration status. But some states have tried.