Why Health Care Reform Could Leave Us All Worse Off

The health care reform bills being debated in Congress threaten to shut out millions of immigrants. But Congress’ exclusionary policies toward immigrants will not simply leave immigrants worse off. They will inevitably jeopardize the nation’s economy and the health of all of us.

President Obama has prioritized health care reform to ensure that millions of Americans have a fair, affordable and efficient health care system. For immigrants, this vision is far from a reality. First, the current health care reform bill treats legal immigrants unfairly. Individuals who have waited years to come to the United States will be required to wait years in order to obtain affordable health care.

Immigrants are generally younger and healthier than the U.S. population at large. However, no one is immune to falling ill or having an accident. The current health care bill would require recently arrived, legal immigrants to wait five years to obtain the only option for affordable health care coverage, Medicaid. While low-income citizens will have access to Medicaid, the most vulnerable among us will continue to wait for affordable health care despite the fact that they pay taxes for the very programs from which they are excluded. There is no sound reason for Congress to discriminate against these individuals and prevent them from receiving basic medical care.

Congress and the White House also took an unprecedented step to prohibit individuals from buying -- with their own hard-earned money -- an American good that could help their families. The Senate version of the health care bill forbids undocumented immigrants from purchasing private insurance at full cost in the newly created insurance marketplaces. As a result, undocumented immigrants as well as their family members, who are often U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, will likely remain uninsured and will be forced to seek care in the emergency room.

The costs of providing health care for undocumented immigrants will not disappear after passing health care reform. It is unlikely that millions of immigrants, whose contributions keep up our standard of living and our economy functioning, will be deported. Instead, the cost of care will become the financial responsibility of the patient, the provider, the local and state governments, and every single taxpayer. Moreover, in order to exclude a few, there will be additional forms, documents, and bureaucrats that the rest of us will be subjected to. Buying the mandated health insurance could feel like a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Taxpayers will have to pay millions for this additional red tape and delay, all to keep a few people from buying health insurance with their own money.

Providers, employers, consumers, religious leaders, and state and local governments recognize that these policies are short-sighted and will cost all of us more in the long-run. Policies that attempt to exclude and ostracize immigrants also disproportionately harm all communities of color and immigrant-rich states like California and New York, further widening existing inequities in our nation. Yet because immigrants live in all 50 states, the intended and unintended consequences and costs of these restrictions will be far-reaching.

Ending discriminatory and exclusionary policies in this final round of negotiations is not only a matter of fundamental fairness and sound economics. It is required in order to not leave all of us worse off. Congress has a short window of opportunity to remove the restrictions on legal and undocumented immigrants in the health care reform bill. Doing so will not jeopardize the passage of the bill. Failing to doing so, however, will leave all of us, immigrant or not, worse off and wondering what happened to the promise of health care reform.

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