Being involved in the immigrant community as a member and a professional, my concerns in any legal field almost instinctively gravitate towards how my fellow immigrants would be affected. Thus, when examining the regulatory changes to health law under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), I was disappointed to discover that the large pool of undocumented immigrants living in the United States will continue to receive absolutely nothing, regardless of the impact that this might have on them, U.S. citizens and Legal Permanent Residents.
The most important changes in the United States health care system under PPACA are probably the requirements for all individuals to have medical insurance and the expansion for eligibility for government-funded health insurance under Medicaid— which will include people from any age range so long as they meet certain financial criteria. However, none of the changes apply to undocumented immigrants. As noted by the Congressional Research Service,
… PPACA expressly exempts unauthorized (illegal) aliens from the mandate to have health coverage and bars them from a health insurance exchange. Unauthorized aliens are not eligible for the federal premium credits or cost-sharing subsidies. Unauthorized aliens are also barred from participating in the temporary high-risk pools.
PPACA mandates that all individuals maintain “minimum essential” health insurance (public or private) or else pay a “shared responsibility payment” to the government in the form of additional taxes at the end of the year. The individual health insurance requirement is a smart move because it will have the effect of injecting financial resources into the health care system through payments to private and public insurances. However, the exemption of over 10 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. from the individual health insurance requirement under PPACA is disadvantageous because it wastes resources that are readily available to further fund the health care system. Specifically, the exemption is wasteful because statistics show that the undocumented immigrant community includes a large number of healthy individuals who would provide more financial support for the system, while not exacting more in health care costs than they have paid in.
Under Medicaid, an individual is eligible if he or she is a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident for at least 5 years; no changes to these criteria were made through PPACA. And, again, undocumented aliens are forbidden from taking part in the Health Insurance Exchange and thereby whatever discounts one might expect from this competitive marketplace. Thus, the desirable benefit of having health insurance will remain unattainable for undocumented immigrants who are unable to afford the costly expenses of having non-discounted and un-subsidized private insurance. So for the large undocumented immigrant population there will be no change with regard to their accessibility to the health care system, and the only available coverage will continue to be through the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) and any available local government health benefits that might be offered in each state.
Having EMTALA as one of the few viable options for medical treatment for all uninsured individuals, regardless of their immigration status, is harmful to the financial stability of the health care system because the type of treatment that must be made available under EMTALA is for emergency medical conditions. Inherently, the costs for treating an emergency condition, which is defined as a condition that could reasonably be expected to place the health of the individual in serious jeopardy or cause serious impairments to bodily functions, is much higher than providing care for preventive medical treatment before the emergency stage. Thus providing health care government assistance to undocumented immigrants for preventive treatment could save the government money in the long run.
The possibility of negative consequences to U.S. citizens when denying affordable medical care to undocumented immigrants should be contemplated when considering an extension of health coverage for minimal essential benefits to undocumented immigrants. For instance, it would be far less costly for the government to subsidize pre-natal treatment for undocumented mothers-to-be (who will, by virtue of their being here, give birth to American citizens) than to assume the costs for the lifetime of a U.S. citizen who is born with permanent disabilities. Similarly, it would be less costly for the government to provide enough medical insurance coverage for an individual to be checked for HIV/AIDS rather than assume the costly treatment to U.S. citizens that could have acquired HIV/AIDS from an immigrant that did not know that he or she was carrying the disease.
Because providing undocumented immigrants some type of health benefit or greater access to health insurance would be more beneficial to the country in numerous ways, the U.S. government should consider putting to use all the financial and human power potential that the undocumented immigrant community offers— rather than casting them out as less than worthy human beings.
Noemi Simbron is a native of Peru and a current law student at Seton Hall University School of Law. Her interest in immigration law stems from her current work as a law clerk at a well known immigration law firm in Newark, N.J., and her own background. She hopes to one day represent her fellow immigrants in a variety of legal fields– including immigration.