Analysts Agree that Undocumented Immigrants Will Not Get Free Health Care, But Who's Listening?

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

Not even the president can establish a fact beyond argument in the divisive health care debate. (Photo: The White House)

Not even a president addressing the nation can establish a fact beyond argument in the divisive health care debate. (Photo: The White House)

It’s probably not what President Barack Obama expected, but the highlight of his speech on health care reform to a joint session of Congress seemed to be his being heckled by South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson. The now infamous “You Lie!” scream came after Obama refuted the Republican claim that undocumented immigrants will receive health care under his initiative.

Several organizations went back to the bill once more Thursday to try to establish for certain who’s actually telling the truth on this one.

The main source in this review is Treatment of Noncitizens in H.R. 3200, an 11-page analysis by the Congressional Research Service, which you can download here.

The report seems to debunk the main claim by the bill’s opponents: that the lack of an explicit verification system to check whether applicants are legally in the U.S. means the undocumented would be able to purchase health coverage with the same government credits citizens would get under the proposal. CRS says that spelling out how the verification system will work will fall to the new Health Choices Commissioner.

“Thus, it appears, absent of a provision in the bill specifying the verification procedure, that the Commissioner would be responsible for determining a mechanism to verify the eligibility of noncitizens for the credits.”

[ See report, page 6 ]

As David M. Herszenhorn points out on a New York Times blog, CRS notes that undocumented immigrants would be able to buy health coverage. They would not be forced to buy it, however, and they would get no subsidies, either.

“…nothing would prevent illegal immigrants from purchasing insurance through the proposed government marketplace known as an exchange,” Herszenhorn writes.

On page 7, when studying the proposed health care exchange, the CRS analysis reads,

“H.R. 3200 does not contain any restrictions on noncitizens—whether legally or illegally present, or in the United States temporarily or permanently—participating in the Exchange. However, as discussed above, H.R. 3200 would only mandate that resident aliens would be required to have health insurance.”

That doesn’t mean that American taxpayers would be footing health care bills for those illegally in the U.S., since the latter would not receive subsidies or credits.

Undocumented immigrants buying insurance with their own money is nothing new, Politifact noted Thursday when it went back to analyze the issue again:

That’s similar to the current system — we’re not aware of any particular restrictions that stop illegal immigrants from buying private insurance now.

Under health care reform, illegal immigrants would be able to buy private insurance or the public option.

When we look at all of this evidence, it seems that health reform leaves in place the status quo on illegal immigration, and certainly does not provide any new benefits particularly for illegal immigrants.

The free-ride argument has been repeatedly made by opponents to the bill, most notoriously in a chain email that circulated widely and was widely refuted, too.

Unfortunately, with the level of discourse sinking lower and lower, the same CRS document is used by both sides to back up their positions. During a brief talk with reporters Thursday morning where he repeated his apologies over the heckling, Rep. Wilson insisted that the CRS “has indicated that indeed the bills that are before Congress would include illegal aliens.” [ Watch below at 1:04 ] [youtube]

NPR’s Scott Hensley checked with experts at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who told him that although “there’s no language that indicates whether or how immigration status or citizen status will be verified” for those purchasing coverage, “that doesn’t mean there won’t be any once it comes time to implement the exchanges.” Federal guidelines would be implemented to determine how that’s done.

That a fact like this cannot be established beyond argument in the public sphere, not even by the president himself when addressing the nation, shows how contaminated the debate (can we still call it that?) has become. In addition, as Marcelo Ballve notes on True/Slant, it provides us with “a preview of what’s to come in the immigration debates, potentially even more rancorous than the bile-filled health care fight.”

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.