The United States is widely known as the “melting pot” of the world, with a reputation for welcoming people from different countries, races, and religions. As an American born in the country, it is easy to take for granted the benefits and securities that are naturally attached to our status; but as a person coming into the country, either legally or illegally, the well-known comforts of having rights, equal opportunities, and cultural freedom are often withheld. While the enactment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is an exciting step in our society’s health care reform, its exclusion of undocumented immigrants will only further highlight the disparities that this population faces and induce a chain reaction of increased health care costs for all Americans.
The consequences of isolating this population will not only be a philanthropic mishap, but also a financial one. Some advocacy groups argue that providing a comprehensive health plan for undocumented immigrants will dip into taxpayer’s pockets, but the reality is we are already supporting this debt. Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), hospital emergency rooms are not allowed to turn away individuals based on their citizenship or insurance status. Naturally, without access to health care, undocumented immigrants are forced to receive services at these high cost institutions, and are being treated for illnesses with the potential to be prevented at a much lower rate. Their lack of insurance causes them to be billed at an out of pocket cost, but their income does not allow for this to be a lucrative transaction. The difference is ultimately absorbed by the federal government, the hospital, and American consumers. It is estimated that this approach costs the federal and state government $10.7 billion a year.
Current immigration policies are complex, and controversy over punishing undocumented immigrants has provoked the harsh decision to restrict them from national health care benefits. The combination of these realities means that over 11 million undocumented individuals and their children (both foreign and non-foreign born) are at increased risk of developing untreated physical and mental health issues. With the constant fear of detention and deportation, these families face obstacles pertaining to post-traumatic stress disorder, child behavioral issues, and educational disadvantages. When detention or deportation does occur, these issues are heightened. The restriction to preventative and primary health care is a pressing concern, as undocumented immigrants tend to have specialized and chronic illnesses due to poverty and societal limitations. Additionally, the oppression of health care services for this population will be an added act of discrimination in the criminal justice system, as all other populations will be assisted in the enrollment of Medicaid or other health insurance options provided by the ACA while being justice-involved.
Denying this population’s inclusion into the ACA is not a way to prevent immigrants from entering illegally, nor is it a way to protect taxpayers’ pockets. Its only purpose is to punish. Current proposals for immigration reform would intensify the health disparities of this population, as immigrants trying to obtain legal residency would be forced to stay on a provisional status for up to 15 years without the possibility of tapping into the ACA’s resources. Including undocumented immigrants in the ACA plan would promote a long-term assurance for a balanced health bill for all Americans, as well bridge the societal gaps that hinder this population’s success in the society that they live in. Providing health care services to all U.S. residents, whether they are legal or illegal, will promote healthy and safe communities.
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
Sunday, 4 August 2013