“We have to turn off the magnet of extraordinary government benefits” to stop illegal immigration. So said GOP candidate Mitt Romney at a recent GOP debate. Romney’s newly spun anti-immigrant stance, however, may be unwound by his own record. As the Los Angeles Times reports, when Romney signed Massachusetts’ progressive health care law in 2006, he created the Health Safety Net program which allows uninsured, poor immigrants to “walk into a health clinic or hospital in the state and get publicly subsidized care at virtually no cost to them, regardless of their immigration status.”
This morning, MSNBC host Chuck Todd asked Romney’s aide Eric Fehrnstrom to explain how a candidate who is now balking at undocumented immigrants could enact such a measure. Denying that the law even “contemplated illegal immigrants getting anything,” Fehrnstrom insisted that any undocumented workers receiving care under the Health Safety Net is strictly current Gov. Deval Patrick’s (D-MA) fault, not Romney’s:
FEHRNSTROM: Well, nothing in the law Mitt Romney signed contemplated illegal immigrants getting anything that they’re not entitled to. To the extent that illegals are receiving some kind of care under the Health Safety Net, that would be a function of what the current Governor Deval Patrick has put into place.[...]
TODD: So if he had the legislation again in front of his desk, would he ask for a specific ban on this safety net program from having them treat undocumented immigrants?
FEHRNSTROM: There’s nothing in the law that permits illegal immigrants to receive care that they’re not entitled to. Now federal requires that illegal immigrants that care in emergency settings. If they’re getting anything beyond that, that would be because of rules written because of Deval Patrick, not Mitt Romney.
When asked whether Romney would support a similar federal measure, Fehrnstrom pointed out that it is already a federal mandate to provide care for undocumented immigrants — a measure signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
The Health Care Safety Net expanded upon Reagan’s federal requirement. According to officials who wrote the program language, “there was a broad understanding when Romney signed it that at least some people who would benefit would be in the country illegally.” The way the health care law is drafted, undocumented immigrants are explicitly barred from certain health benefits such as Medicaid elsewhere, but not from the Health Safety Net language. It says that only those who “moved into the commonwealth for the sole purpose of securing health insurance” or are eligible for another insurance plan cannot benefit from the program. If Romney wanted to prohibit aid to undocumented immigrants, he could’ve lobbied to change the language or veto the bill.
Romney had good reason to support such language in 2006. Without access to more affordable health care, undocumented immigrants often visit emergency rooms, costing the government about $43 billion in uncompensated care. Seventy-five percent of the cost of such care is paid by taxpayers. “There have been few complaints” in the state about the program.
Of course, the fact that the 2006 Romney actually enacted a cost-effective health care policy for his state will only aggravate the 2011 Romney. As he said in a debate, he can’t do anything on behalf of the undocumented because, after all, he’s “running for office.”