Many Undocumented Immigrants Continue Without Health Care
The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act last week cleared the way for its implementation. But there’s one very large segment of the population for whom the new law will not apply.
“Passing the Affordable Care Act was the greatest single step in generations toward ensuring access to affordable, quality health care for every person in America,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after last week’s decision about the controversial law.
But it’s not for every person. More than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States will be virtually untouched by the Affordable Care Act. Those same people are entitled to receive emergency health care, even if they can’t afford it, under a federal law passed during the Reagan administration. That costs the state and local hospital districts more than $800 million a year, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
At a low-cost medical clinic in Austin run by El Buen Samaritano Episcopal Mission, immigrants sitting in the waiting room said they would rather be able to buy affordable coverage through health insurance exchanges that go into effect in 2014.
“I think it’s important to have health insurance,” says Norma Barron. “If I could have it I’d take it because if I need it, it’s my health that’s on the line.”
“I think the right to health and medical insurance shouldn’t be denied to any human being,” says Freddie Lainze. “That’s my opinion.”
But excluding undocumented immigrants from health insurance exchanges is not exactly controversial, given the concern that it could encourage illegal immigration. You might remember an infamous exchange that took place when President Obama was addressing Congress in 2009.
“There were also those who would claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This too is false,” Obama said. “The reforms I am proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.”
In response, Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” at the president. He later apologized for his outburst.
Anne Dunkelberg is with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a progressive state policy think tank. She says the politics of immigration might be preventing us from saving money on health care.
“It’s politically tortured territory to start working on access to care for undocumented folks,” Dunkelberg says. “So having a big chunk of the population like the undocumented who stay outside the system, it definitely works against the goals of the Affordable Care Act – getting to the most cost-effective place we could be in our health-care system.”
But opponents of the Affordable Care Act reject the premise that it would bring costs down at all.
“What we need is a better immigration policy and we need to have health-care reform that will actually lower the costs for everyone,” said Arlene Wohlgemuth with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. “This bill is not it.”
Wohlgemuth says there are already numerous ways for illegal immigrants to access affordable health care such as low-cost clinics, Federally Qualified Health Centers and emergency Medicaid. About one-third of undocumented immigrants have private health insurance, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Many others just pay their doctors in cash.