In a much-anticipated prime time address to Congress, President Obama made the case for health care reform. One ostensible goal of the speech was to correct misinformation about the bills proposed by Congress. As a scholar who studies both health care and immigration (and sometimes the intersection between the two), I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the misconceptions surrounding this issue — and I very much hoped the President would deflate the myth that health reform would provide federal benefits to undocumented immigrants.
Of course, when President Obama made this very point (”The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally”), he was greeted with a heckle from South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, who shouted “You lie!” Although Rep. Wilson later apologized for his “lack of civility,” he didn’t recant the basic factual assertion, making clear that he still disagreed with the President’s statement that health reform doesn’t cover undocumented immigrants. Of course, the media has jumped on this story, but perhaps unsurprisingly, few bothered to clarify the underlying factual dispute.
Neither bill published by the House or Senate covers undocumented immigrants. In fact, both bills state in pretty plain terms that they don’t do it. The House bill, titled America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, states in Section 242 that those not lawfully present in the United States are not eligible for insurance subsidies or tax credits. To make it even more clear, Section 246 is titled “No Federal Payment for Undocumented Aliens,” and states “Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.”
Likewise, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee’s bill, titled the Affordable Health Choices Act, states in Section 3111(h) that “Nothing in this Act shall allow Federal payments for individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.” The Senate Finance Committee has yet to release its bill, but it’s a good bet that undocumented immigrants similarly will be excluded.
Although nothing in the bills apparently would prohibit undocumented immigrants from purchasing health insurance in the new national marketplace (called an “exchange” and a “gateway” in the House and Senate bills), it’s not clear why anyone would take issue with immigrants purchasing insurance on their own, without federal subsidies. Moreover, although nothing in the bills seems to alter federal funding for emergency care provided to immigrants, nothing creates such a benefit either — thus undercutting Rep. Wilson’s contention with the President.
This controversy should remind us that immigrants remain in a sort of health care purgatory, caught in our two most dysfunctional systems — immigration and health care. In the mid-1990s, Congress severely limited immigrant access to programs like Medicaid as part of welfare reform, making it difficult for even lawful immigrants to enroll. In fact, even lawful immigrants aren’t eligible for Medicaid for five years after entering the United States — and various peculiarities of immigration law often push this waiting period to ten years. At the same time, immigrants do receive indirect federal funding for health care through the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires hospitals with emergency departments to screen and at least stabilize patients presenting with emergent conditions. Thus, hospitals must provide emergency care regardless of the patient’s immigration status.
Unfortunately, most immigrants are ineligible for means-tested public insurance programs like Medicaid. This regulatory framework has led to “medical repatriation,” in which hospitals effectively deport immigrant patients to unload expensive long-term care burdens. Of course, hospitals — most of which are run by state and local governments — complain about unfunded federal mandates like EMTALA. Hospitals can be “stuck” treating immigrants whose medical needs have shifted from acute to long-term (as with the car accident victim who needs neurological rehabilitation and nursing care). As Prof. Boozang discussed, a growing number have begun “repatriating” immigrant patients by sending them back to their country of origin — without consulting immigration officials — sometimes by purchasing commercial plane tickets or even hiring air ambulances.
Certainly, there are more humane ways to handle health care for immigrants. California, for example, legalized cross-border health insurance, thus allowing immigrants living in the state to purchase insurance with lower premiums and deductibles that covers care provided in Mexico. Arizona and Texas have considered similar legislation, to no avail. Recently, UCLA researchers estimated that over 950,000 people travel from California to Mexico for medical care every year. For a population being left out of health care reform, traveling to Mexico for care may be the future — whether voluntary or not.
Professor Cortez teaches and writes in the areas of health law, FDA law, administrative law, and the legislative process at SMU School of Law. His scholarship focuses on international and comparative health law, particularly the regulation of emerging international markets in health care and biotechnology, such as cross-border health care, medical tourism, and clinical trials. He also writes about immigration federalism.
Before joining the SMU law faculty, Professor Cortez practiced with the Washington, D.C., law firm Arnold & Porter, where he represented medical technology clients in administrative, legislative, litigation, and transactional matters, with a special emphasis on health care fraud and abuse, FDA enforcement, health privacy, and the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Professor Cortez is a frequent contributor to Health Reform Watch, where this post first appeared.