Immigrants don't overuse health care system

It's not exactly news among those who follow these things, but it bears noting that a new report once more shows that immigrants in the United States today, whether they have legal status or not, are certainly not overusing the U.S. health care system, and are in fact using it less than are U.S. citizens.

The report entitled “Reality Check: Immigrants and Health Care” was put out by the Immigration Policy Center, a branch of the American Immigration Law Foundation, and can be read in its entirety at www.immigrationpolicy.org, a website that is a major resource for this kind of information and should be bookmarked by anybody working on the immigration issue. The main points are:

*A study published by the American Journal of Public Health found that immigrants with health insurance had ½ to 2/3 lower medical expenses than did U.S. born “with similar characteristics”. In other words, the lower health care expenses of immigrants is not explained by differences in age and other demographic and social factors between themselves and the U.S. born citizens.

*”Recent immigrants constituted 5% of the nonelderly, adult population, but were only responsible for 2% of adults total health care costs”.

*Four out of five of the 47 million or so people in the United States who don't have health insurance are U.S. citizens. Legal and undocumented immigrants together make up only 22% of the nonelderly uninsured. (This is an extremely important and timely piece of information because one of the arguments put forward by the far right against expanding health care coverage for those who now don't have it is that they are mostly a bunch of “illegal immigrants” and that the problem can be solved by deporting them all).

*U.S. citizens account for 80 of the growth of the number of uninsured between 2000 and 2006, while noncitizens account for 20%, in spite of increased undocumented immigration in that period.

*A study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that in 2005 undocumented immigrants made up only a small share of California's uninsured.

*A study by the Kaiser Commission shows that noncitizens use emergency rooms at a lower rate than do citizens. Another report in the journal Health Affairs shows that in communities where there is a high usage of emergency rooms, the number of noncitizens in the community is relatively small.

The wild scenes being orchestrated at health care forums around the country sometimes involve accusations that “illegal immigrants” are to blame for high health care costs, or that they are major group that does not have health insurance, or that the health care bills being debated in Congress are giveaways to illegal immigrants. These accusations are all staples of the anti-immigrant movement also. In fact the studies cited in the above report and a lot of others show that this is not true. Immigrants, including the undocumented, tend to be healthier than the relatives and neighbors they leave behind. The physical experience of coming to the United States without papers is arduous and people who are chronically ill tend not to want to hike through the Sonora desert in 110 degree (F) heat. This has been known for a long time, yet demagogues like CNN's Lou Dobbs come up with lying accounts of immigrants bringing in leprosy and the like.

The health care reform bills now being debated do not cover undocumented immigrants at all, a fact which this publication and this author have strongly criticized. Besides the humanitarian (or human solidarity) issue, there is an urgent public health need to cover everybody. When (not if) the H1N1 flu comes back in the fall, it will be important that everybody in the country, regardless of their place of origin and legal status, have quick access to inoculation and treatment, or we are all endangered. A virus does not ask for your “mica” (legal immigrant's ID card) before it infects you, and before it jumps from you to someone else.