Reform Could Fund Health Care for Illegal Workers

Health care reform could end up bailing out employers who hire illegal immigrants and skimp on their health benefits.

Under the legislation being considered on Capitol Hill, undocumented workers would technically not be covered. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as much in an interview Sunday.

“No, illegal immigrants are not covered by this plan,” she said.

But the reality, immigration analysts say, is that the legislation is missing any mechanism to keep illegals out of the system. And if they exploit that loophole, taxpayers could be on the hook for billions to cover health care costs their employers do not.

Already, illegal immigrants account for $10.7 billion in state and federal health care spending, according to preliminary numbers from The Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Special projects director Jack Martin said that amount, which derives in large part from emergency room visits and births, would only rise unless the health care proposals on the Hill are changed.

“The bill in its current form is in effect going to be tempting to illegal immigrants who are not yet receiving medical benefits,” Martin said. “We would expect that the cost would increase.”

In a recent study, FAIR said that nothing in the health care package would prevent illegal immigrants from enrolling in a taxpayer-funded public plan, and that no verification mechanisms exist to prevent them from receiving credits to help with private plans.

The increased burden on taxpayers means they would inevitably end up footing the bill for employers who hire illegal immigrants.

The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that 7.25 million illegal immigrants do not have health insurance.

Steven Camarota, research director at the non-partisan think tank, said that of those, about 4 million are probably employed — and that the cost of covering all of them could be in the neighborhood of $8 billion to $12 billion annually.

Those figures are full of variables.

On one hand, it doesn’t include the cost of covering children — which could put the number even higher.

On the other, it assumes all employed illegal immigrants had no public health benefits before and would suddenly max them out in the future. In reality, some of them would have already been funded in part by the public whenever they went to the emergency room. Plus it’s unlikely that all 4 million would seek better health care under the new plan because some would be afraid of being caught. And businesses big enough could face a mandate to provide coverage anyway, should they choose to comply. That puts the final number lower.

In addition, many illegal immigrants do pay taxes — so those individuals would not be getting something for nothing.

But Camarota said at the very least, the health care plans being considered on Capitol Hill would probably exacerbate the problem of employers letting taxpayers pay for their illegal workers’ health care.

“Illegal immigration kind of looms as the 800-pound gorilla,” he said. “The impact is really big.”

And he said the legislation invites that impact.

“The legislation says illegal immigrants are not supposed to get this plan, but it also guts any of the mechanisms that would leave them out — typical Washington kind of thing,” Camarota said.

Though undocumented workers wouldn’t technically be allowed in the plan, President Obama frequently factors them in to describe how bad the health care crisis is.

Just last week, Obama cited the “47 million Americans” who are uninsured as he called on Congress to act.

But that figure, which critics say is already slightly overstated, includes millions of non-citizens — legal and illegal.

A Census report on 2007 statistics showed that the 45.7 million people in the United States were uninsured. Of those, 9.7 million were not citizens.

And most of those are illegal immigrants, according to other studies. While the Center for Immigration Studies estimated 7.25 million were illegal, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that number at 6 million.

Why are so many immigrants uninsured?

According to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, non-citizen immigrants are far more likely to be uninsured than native-born citizens mostly because they are less likely to be offered health insurance by their employers.

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