While we are holding our breath for our representatives to enact health care reform that includes a strong public option, Senator Max Baucus has already announced that any plan that comes out of his office will “not cover undocumented workers because that’s too politically explosive.” The debate over coverage of undocumented workers has blazed in the media in recent weeks; and NPR examined the issue yesterday.
I recently wrote an editorial to the Helena Independent Record on this subject. The article was written in response to a rambling, bigoted piece by Yeh Ling-Ling of a California-based “sustainability” group. My editorial is below, and you can also find it here:
“Arguments to Exclude Immigrants From Health Care Reform Are Based on Income-Level Rather Than Citizenship”
The vast majority of Montanans believe that access to affordable health care is a fundamental human right, and have voiced their overwhelming support for health care reform that will ensure that no one is forced to forgo necessary medical treatment for themselves or their loved ones.
Truly universal coverage must include access for everyone, without regard to income level, pre-existing conditions, or citizenship. Therefore, no matter what health care program emerges from the discussions that are taking place in Congress, participation must not be based on immigration status.
Yeh Ling-Ling, a California resident, argued in an editorial on June 22, 2009 that health care reform requires us to turn our backs on our non-citizen neighbors. However, the arguments that she makes are based more on social status and income level than citizenship, and could be equally applied to low-income U.S. citizens. Ling-Ling argues that immigrants may be a drain on the system “because of their low incomes.” Disregarding the offensive nature of this generalization, the statement implies that the wealthy are entitled to better health care than lower-income families. The rejection of this notion is at the heart of the debate on health care reform. The health care system that reform produces needs to treat health care as a public good, and ensure that it is available to everyone, without exceptions.
Ling-Ling’s arguments appear to be geared not towards immigrants in general, but poor immigrants. However, most Montanans believe in a public health care plan that is taxed on a sliding scale so that everyone can participate. Non-citizens will pay into these programs just like citizens, and should be given the opportunity to obtain health insurance without restrictions and waiting periods based on immigration status.
Excluding immigrants from health care coverage does not reduce costs, because it only increases the use of expensive emergency room services. People who are uninsured receive less preventive care, are more likely to delay seeking treatment for potentially serious conditions, and are diagnosed at more advanced stages of disease. Therefore, when uninsured immigrants come into the hospital, they usually require critical emergency care that is more expensive and less effective than comprehensive health care coverage. Because emergency care must be provided to everyone regardless of immigration status or ability to pay, we are paying to treat illness in the least efficient way possible.
Restricting immigrants’ access to health care would also hurt Montana families because legal permanent residents are usually spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens. The law requires these “green card” holders to wait several years to obtain citizenship, and delays in processing citizenship applications create even further impediments to citizenship. Many Montana families are “mixed status” families, and if any member of the family is uninsured, medical costs can cripple the entire household.
Immigration enforcement measures have no place in health care, which is based on the dignity and preservation of human life. The pursuit of cost-savings cannot come at the price of human pain and suffering. Enacting health care reform does not require us to close the door on our immigrant neighbors.
Shahid Haque-Hausrath is the Managing Attorney of the Border Crossing Law Firm in Helena, Montana and provides free legal representation to immigrants who cannot afford to pay.