Febuary 9, 2007

Commentary:

Passing the Buck on Health Care for Undocumented

By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz
New America Media

Well-meaning people can be fooled by politicians some of the time because they’re so hungry for good deeds from public officials. Sometimes, we just fool ourselves.

Take my friend in New York, who called to say he was “pleasantly shocked” that our Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger “is turning out to be pretty good.”

My well-meaning buddy was particularly impressed that Schwarzenegger’s $12-billion plan for “universal” health insurance for the California’s 6.5 million uninsured residents apparently includes coverage for undocumented immigrants. That’s the impression headlines like The New York Times’ “California Plan for Health Care Would Cover All” tended to give.

Not so fast, I told my friend. Schwarzenegger’s plan would indeed provide state-subsidized coverage to all children, including children of undocumented immigrants, but the coverage won’t include adults.

Instead, the plan leaves it to local county governments to voluntarily set up new and separate coverage programs for the state’s estimated one million undocumented adults. That’s the catch, because it’s doubtful counties will have the money, and the governor’s plan doesn’t require them to provide to such programs. It’s just a suggestion.

Schwarzenegger’s office claims that up to $2 billion now being spent by public hospitals in unpaid care can be redirected so the counties can cover the undocumented. But this projected bounty for the counties is fool’s gold, some critics’ say, as other health programs for children and the poor are badly in need of it.

So the governor’s health plan for undocumented immigrants consists of passing the buck to the counties, and his claim of “universal coverage” is a sleight of hand. My well-meaning friend was so eager for a humanitarian public policy he didn¹t realize Satan was lurking in the details.

Meanwhile, most Californians are deceived through blind self-interest. Schwarzenegger wouldn’t touch health coverage for all undocumented immigrants because he obviously had focus- grouped and polled the idea and found that Californians are allergic to it.

According to the Jan. 2-6 poll by Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University half of the state’s adults, and half of voters, say the government should guarantee health insurance for everyone, instead of relying on employers or individuals to provide coverage. So far, so good.

But the same poll showed only 37 percent of adults and 32 percent of voters say undocumented immigrants should be included, The common complaint was: “Why should taxpayers pay for the health insurance of people who are here illegally?”

However, sick people will seek medical attention with or without health insurance. And they should, for their sake and that of public health. And where do the uninsured go? To public hospitals and emergency rooms, which by law can’t turn them away, and each visit is hugely expensive.

So expensive that Schwarzenegger said uninsured patients last year “left behind $60 million in unpaid bills” in one California hospital alone. It would be more cost-effective to provide health coverage to all, including the undocumented.

But California taxpayers are so wary of “paying for illegals’ health care” they will let stand the more costly health-care-through-ER’s status quo. Who’s already paying for it, and who will pay should the undocumented still be denied health coverage? The very same taxpayers.

We are often so worried about bumping into a tree that we get hopelessly lost in the forest.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage