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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Pena: Will Legal Immigrants Be Left Out of US Health Reform?

By Maria Peña

WASHINGTON – The health-care reform currently being discussed already excludes undocumented immigrants but offers the government an opportunity to lift the 5-year ban on federal medical subsidies for tax-paying legal immigrants.

Legal residents, who currently face obstacles in arranging to get their visas while in their countries of origin, pay all the taxes required of an American citizen but, since 1996, have not enjoyed the same rights and privileges.

A federal law states that, except in humanitarian cases, most legal immigrants have to wait five years to request, for example, benefits from the Medicaid program, which covers poor people’s medical expenses.

In Washington’s corridors of power, the consensus is that a possible reform of heath services will undoubtedly exclude any subsidy for undocumented immigrants, who are already banned from receiving any help from the U.S. system of public welfare benefits.

But, as Marc Rosenblum, an analyst of health matters for the Migration Policy Institute, told Efe, the debate on health reform “offers a chance to reevaluate the exclusion” of legal immigrants and, above all, to clear up who and how many will benefit from the reform.

A key question that must be asked in this heated debate, Rosenblum said, is whether low-income legal immigrants will be able to receive federal subsidies to buy health insurance.

If a consensus can be forged around this point it would be a political victory for Hispanics, who in great measure contributed to the electoral victory of President Barack Obama in November 2008.

It would also be consistent with Obama’s goal of improving the quality of health care and the number of people insured in the United States while cutting medical costs, analysts say.

In that sense, Rosenblum and other analysts said that, in general, legal immigrants tend to be younger and healthier than the U.S. population as a whole, so their inclusion in the new health system being worked out would generate long-term savings.

The alternative would be disastrous, of course: the anecdotes are innumerable about immigrants, both legal and illegal, who for lack of health insurance never go to the doctor or, worse still, wait until their medical condition gets so bad they end up in the emergency room.

What is absurd, observers say, is the idea some lawmakers have of excluding even legal immigrants from health-care reform, arguing that this is the way to put the brakes on future immigration.

What is undeniable is that depriving people of medical services because of their immigration status not only puts their health in danger but also that of all the other people who have to share public spaces with them.

Nor will it halt immigration to the United States, which, as is well documented, stems from the underdevelopment and poverty in Latin America and the lack of well-paid jobs in the region. Immigrants, with or without their papers, put down roots wherever they have work, family and friends in the United States.

They don’t come to the United States, as some conservatives and anti-immigrant groups insinuate, for the quality of medical care. For example...almost 50 million U.S. citizens lack health insurance, and tens of thousands more have coverage that is very undependable.

The challenge for the White House is to get Congress to approve a vast reform of the health-care system in 2009 and, if there is enough political capital left over, to put through comprehensive immigration reform next year as well.

It’s an enormous, unenviable job for Obama but these measures are two of the promises he made to the electorate. To enact them he will need the support of Congress, where there is no consensus on either of them. EFE

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