One of the touchiest subjects we face apart from health care in our society today is that of immigration. But perhaps, it’s not really an issue “apart from health care,” but rather it plays an important role in the sustainability – or unsustainability – of our government-led health care system. We need to address the issue of immigration as it pertains to health care from a couple of lenses: ethics and finances.
A couple of weeks ago, we debated whether or not access to health care is a right or a privilege. I believe it’s a right for all, not a privilege reserved for some, but should that apply to people who are in the country illegally? Societies throughout history have valued taking care of immigrants, and certainly, we wouldn’t turn away a human being who needs emergency care. Where, though, should the line be drawn?
The Immigration Policy Center, for one, claims that “Unauthorized immigrants do not game the system and receive health care for which they are not eligible” and asserts, citing Kaiser Commission numbers, that only 13% of noncitizen adults, as opposed to 20% of citizen adults, used emergency room care in 2006. The IPC also believes that eligibility verification systems would be costly and inaccurate.
On the other hand, we must consider what it means that, as of 2007, immigrants – both those here legally and illegally – “account for 31.9 percent of the entire uninsured population,” as the Center for Immigration Studies asserts, adding that “Immigrants and their children are 16.8 percent of the nation’s total population.” What kind of impact does that have on our health care system when providing emergency care without any sort of insurance coverage? With immigrants who have come in under the radar not paying taxes, what kind of effect does this have on our economy as a whole?
It’s not my intent to get into an immigration debate. At this point, both sides recognize that our current system is not ideal. However, the decisions we make in immigration policy weigh heavily on virtually every other sector of society, including health care. What we as health care professionals can do now is to care for the vulnerable, such as immigrants, and to ensure that our system can sustain caring for the vulnerable ones in our midst over the long term.