AUSTIN, Texas - Far from burdening the health care system, immigrants are
helping to subsidize medical care for native-born Americans, according to a
Harvard/Columbia University study weighing in on one of the flashpoints in
debate over immigration.
The report, released Monday and appearing in the current issue of the
American Journal of Public Health, concludes that although many immigrants
pay Medicare payroll and other taxes, they receive less than half as much
health care as native-born families.
Immigrant children, in particular, receive 74 percent less health care than
U.S.-born children. Latino immigrants had the lowest health expenditures.
The federal government will soon start paying $1 billion through 2008 to
hospitals and doctors for providing emergency care to illegal immigrants.
In May, hospitals, doctors and ambulance services in Arizona and other
border states were able to start billing the federal government for
emergency care they provide to illegal entrants.
Arizona will receive up to $45 million a year for the four fiscal years that
began last Oct. 1. Payments will be retroactive to that date, the government
promised in May when it issued reimbursement guidelines.
The Harvard/Columbia report, however, leaves unanswered questions about the
impact illegal immigrants have on health care costs. Proponents of strict
immigration control often argue that illegal immigrants are a drain on
health care, but there is little definitive data to support that argument.
"These findings help refute the popular mythologies that immigrants are
placing a disproportionate burden on the health care system," said Sarita
Mohanty, a physician who led the study while she was at Harvard.
Researchers said the findings argue against proposals to restrict
immigrants' eligibility for care, because such policies would save little
money and place many - particularly children - at grave risk.
The study does not indicate how much is spent on care for illegal immigrants
because it was based on federal surveys that do not break out illegal
"That's the big criticism," said one of the study's co-authors, Olveen
Carrasquillo of Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons.
But he said researchers probably would have found greater disparities had
they been able to focus on undocumented immigrants. Many illegal immigrants
also pay federal taxes, but most lack health insurance and receive even less
"If anything, we would have found even lower health expenditures for the
undocumented," Carrasquillo said.
As the nation's immigrant population has surged, states, lawmakers,
taxpayers and hospital executives have expressed concern that illegal
immigrants impose huge burdens on states' health care systems.
Though most of the nation's uninsured are U.S.-born, hospitals write off as
much as $2 billion a year in unpaid bills to treat illegal immigrants,
according to some estimates.
A federal Government Accountability Office study, however, concluded it is
impossible to determine costs for treating the undocumented, because medical
care providers rarely ask patients about their immigration status.
Federal law requires hospitals, public or private, to treat all emergency
room patients, regardless of their ability to pay.