Illegal Aliens’ Health-Care Tab Is Elusive

Toby Manthey, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Fayetteville), September 21, 2008

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The U. S. Government Accountability Office has examined the price of uncompensated care—for which hospitals receive no payment—and concluded that an accurate assessment of the effect of illegal aliens’ contribution “remains elusive.”

Most hospitals nationwide don’t record patients’ immigration status, the agency said in a 2004 report, its most recent on the subject.

Several of Arkansas’ largest hospitals and health systems—including Baptist Health, St. Vincent Health System, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Northwest Health System, Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, St. Joseph’s Mercy Health Center and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences—also say they don’t know much illegal aliens add to uncompensated-care expenses.

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About 11 million to 12 million illegal aliens now reside in the country, according to estimates by Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. Nationwide, the number grew by more than 1. 5 million annually in 1999 and 2000. The count grew by more than 500,000 annually from 2000-05, although some experts believe the numbers have fallen in the past 12 months.

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Leighton Ku, a professor of health policy at George Washington University in Washington, said there is a “fairly widespread belief” that there are “vast amounts of money being spent on uncompensated care” for illegal aliens.

“In general,” he said, studies on the subject show that the amounts “are considerably less than many people believe.”

Ku cited a study by Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based independent nonprofit institution for an indication of the levels of care received by illegal aliens. Rand estimated that about 1.3 percent of public funds spent on medical costs nationwide in 2000, or about $1.1 billion, was for illegal aliens. Total medical costs for illegal aliens, including public, private and personal costs, was estimated at $6.5 billion, “or 1.5 percent of total national medical costs—half as large as their 3.2 percent population share,” the report said.

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One group that wants to place limits on immigration, the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, says the uncompensated costs from illegal aliens likely is small in Arkansas because they’re a small share of the total uninsured.

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Arkansas has 30,000 to 50,000 illegal aliens, said a 2006 report by Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center, a widely quoted expert on census data and related issues. Passel’s report analyzed data from the U. S. government’s March 2005 Current Population Survey.

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In its 2004 report, the Government Accountability Office said it was unable to measure illegal aliens’ costs in hospitals by looking at records of patients with no Social Security numbers. Illegal aliens can obtain fake or stolen Social Security numbers, and emergency room patients often are treated and gone before their numbers are collected, the report said. And some U.S. citizens refuse to give their numbers. For hospitals responding to a GAO request for data, the median amount of uncompensated inpatient days from patients who didn’t have a Social Security number was 4 percent to 5 percent. But those results aren’t necessarily representative of the entire population. Just 39 percent of hospitals surveyed, or 198 hospitals, provided enough information to be included.

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The federal Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act, called EMTALA, requires that everyone has access to emergency services regardless of ability to pay. Hospitals that receive Medicare reimbursement and offer emergency services must give screenings for emergency conditions and stabilize the patients, including determining if a pregnant woman is in labor, regardless of ability to pay.

The act doesn’t distinguish between U.S. citizens and illegal aliens, but that doesn’t mean anyone could come to the United States and receive any kind of care for free, said Mary Kahn, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

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While hospitals aren’t compensated for all of the care required by the emergency medical act, some government reimbursement is available.

For the combined federal fiscal years 2006 and 2007, Arkansas hospitals, ambulance companies and other providers were reimbursed $668,000 by the federal government through the Section 1011 program created in 2003 for uncompensated emergency room care for illegal aliens. Providers in the state could have received a maximum of $1.9 million for such care, according to theMedicare & Medicaid Services center.

Nationwide, about $406 million in taxpayer money went to reimbursement to health-care providers for such care for those two years, out of a maximum of $692 million available under the program.

Under the program’s guidelines, hospitals do not ask a patient for immigration status but instead try to determine eligible cases in ways such as asking for a person’s country of birth and whether or not he is eligible for Medicaid.

The payments are only a portion of a hospital’s full cost of providing care, even emergency care, to illegal aliens, experts say. The funds available in each state and nationwide are limited, reimbursement often is less than what hospitals bill for, and hospitals don’t always bill for all the care they provide, Kahn said.

In general, illegal immigrants aren’t eligible for Medicaid. In Arkansas, Medicaid’s “unborn child” program did pay about $8.4 million in fiscal 2007 for prenatal care for 3,445 foreign women in Arkansas. Some of those are illegal aliens, but Medicaid doesn’t break down how many. {snip}

Arkansas Medicaid also has a “disproportionate share” program that reimburses for emergency care services at a few hospitals that have a high proportion of poor patients. That would include some illegal aliens, but reimbursement is not broken out by citizenship or residency status, Munsell said. State funding of services for illegal aliens has been a divisive issue. Arkansas Senate Bill 206, filed in 2005, would have prohibited state services from being extended to illegal aliens unless the services were mandated by the U. S. government. Then-Gov. Mike Huckabee called the bill “inflammatory . . . race-baiting and demagoguery.” Jim Holt, the bill’s sponsor and a former Republican state senator from Springdale, said at the time that the issue was about a “commitment to a country.” “The issue is not about color or racism,” he said.

CALIFORNIA IMPACT

In recent years, some hospital associations in states with large immigrant populations have estimated the effect of illegal aliens on members’ uncompensated care expenses. (The Arkansas Hospital Association hasn’t studied the issue, spokesman Paul Cunningham said. ) About 25 percent of the nation’s illegal immigrants live in California, The New York Times reported this year. The paper said the California Hospital Association has estimated that illegal immigrants receive about 10 percent of the $9.7 billion in uncompensated care in that state.

Florida’s hospital association said in a 2003 report, its most recent on the subject, that caring for uninsured people who aren’t citizens cost 39 hospitals or health systems in the state about $40 2 million in 2002.

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