Leaving Undocumented Immigrants Behind

This post is by Shena Elrington, Staff Attorney and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett Public Interest Fellow in the Health Justice Program at NYLPI.

On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law.  The legislation represents the most sweeping reform of the American health care system since the New Deal.  Although the legislation calls for nearly universal health coverage – reducing the number of the uninsured by 32 million by 2019,  it fails to extend such coverage to undocumented immigrants, creating a large coverage gap that will inevitably strain the burgeoning health care system.

The new legislation prohibits undocumented immigrants from purchasing private health insurance in newly formed state exchanges at full costs and receiving premium tax credits or cost-sharing reductions to help purchase insurance.  Notwithstanding the new legislation, undocumented immigrants may still receive emergency care under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) and Emergency Medicaid.  Neither EMTALA nor Emergency Medicaid, however, provides undocumented immigrants with adequate care.  EMTALA, for instance, requires only that hospitals screen individuals for emergency medical conditions and stabilize (or appropriately transfer) individuals with such conditions.  Beyond screening and stabilizing individuals, EMTALA imposes no additional obligations on hospitals to provide care.  Emergency Medicaid is only available to individuals – regardless of immigration status – who are so acutely ill that the failure to receive medical attention would place their health in serious jeopardy.  Health care providers are often unfamiliar with Emergency Medicaid’s eligibility requirements and deny coverage to undocumented immigrants based on their immigration status.  Both EMTALA and Emergency Medicaid focus on providing care only when individuals are at their sickest and when the cost of treatment is at its highest.  From both a health and financial standpoint, it makes little sense for undocumented immigrants to initially engage the health care system at this point.

There are some 7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, with an estimated 700,000 living in New York State. Sooner or later these individuals will need health care and will likely receive this care at the emergency stage.  The Affordable Care Act offers some hope for folding this population into the health care system in the form of $11 billion support for the creation of community health centers in underserved communities.  Absent federal immigration reform – an issue as divisive as health reform itself, individual states will need to ensure that undocumented immigrants are not left entirely out of the fold.  Failing to do so will only end up being more costly in the future.

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Filed under federal, immigrant health, immigrant rights, legislation

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