As Congress debates comprehensive immigration reform, members of both parties have insisted on barring undocumented immigrants who achieve provisional legal status from receiving Medicaid coverage or Obamacare subsidies (a provision that was already part of the health law). But preventing these immigrants from gaining basic health benefits is actually a fiscally irresponsible model that will only raise health care spending and contribute to a sicker U.S. population.
The common argument against providing health care to undocumented immigrants is that, since they’ve broken the law, they should be punished. A part of that punishment involves denying them health care services through public entitlement programs or federal subsidies that are dependent on Americans’ tax dollars. “We must value the contribution of immigrants to our country. In doing so, we must protect our borders, we must protect our workers, and we must protect the taxpayer,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Thursday.
But the taxpayer already foots the bill for undocumented immigrants’ care — just in an incredibly inefficient and half-baked way. Under the auspices of the Reagan-era Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), hospital emergency rooms can’t turn away patients based on their citizenship or insurance status. That doesn’t mean that their care magically becomes free — undocumented men and women who use the emergency room are still slapped with a hefty hospital bill.
However, if they are unable to pay that bill — which is fairly likely considering that they probably don’t have any insurance — then a combination of the federal government, state governments, hospitals, and other American consumers of U.S. health care are forced to absorb the cost. In turn, that raises prices for medical services, since hospitals want to recoup some of their losses. Some studies have estimated the price of subsidizing undocumented immigrants’ health care at about $10.7 billion per year.
The federal government has long been aware of this problem. In fact, soon after EMTALA’s passage, lawmakers authorized a special Medicaid fund that mostly goes towards subsidizing emergency treatments for undocumented immigrants. The program costs about $2 billion per year, and most of that money is used on delivering babies for pregnant, undocumented women who go to the emergency room.