Jacob Hauschild, MJLST Staffer
In a June Democratic Primary debate, moderator Savannah Guthrie asked the field of candidates who would provide undocumented immigrants access to health care coverage. When all ten candidates raised their hands, the issue of health care access for undocumented immigrants was pushed to the forefront of the health care reform debate.
Despite this apparent unanimity, Democrats are far from aligned on the issue—never mind the policy’s poor popularity among voters. But lacking from the public discourse is due attention to how undocumented immigrants currently engage with our health care system.
Health care coverage is usually attained by U.S. citizens through one of three sources: (1) employer-sponsored insurance (ESI), (2) public health care programs (for example, Medicare and Medicaid), and (3) the individual market. Not all of these doors are open to undocumented immigrants, however. While some do have access to ESI, undocumented immigrants are generally prohibited from enrolling in federal public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and they are also not permitted to purchase health insurance on the federal or state-based marketplaces. While they can buy short- or long-term coverage directly from an insurer or an insurance broker, this coverage is often prohibitively expensive. Therefore, undocumented immigrants who cannot access health care insurance through their employer are often left with no coverage options; in fact, undocumented immigrants are uninsured at a rate of about 45%, compared to the only 8% of citizens who are uninsured.
The lack of access to health care coverage causes lower utilization of health care services, particularly preventative care. Some uninsured patients have access to income-based Community Health Centers—which are an “important source of primary care” for the uninsured—but these facilities often lack “stable revenue streams [and] sufficient staffing support.” Further, most hospital systems have “Charity Care” programs, but these programs tend to focus on paying for health care costs already incurred, rather than promoting use of preventative care to help patients stay healthy and reduce future cost.
Low access to preventative care services results in poorer health care outcomes and more complex and expensive health care needs later in life for the undocumented and other uninsured groups. That care is often delivered in the emergency room, where care for an emergency medical condition cannot be denied due to ability to pay. The financial burden of this uncompensated care weighs on the entire health care system and poses a detriment to the financial and physical wellness of our communities. Further, the financial loss from this uncompensated care is ultimately spread among all health care consumers—for example, through increased taxes; diversion of public funds from other programs; and, as is often claimed, increases to the costs of private health insurance—and is leading to the insolvency of health care systems in communities with fewer commercially insured patients.
Keeping in mind the impact of high uninsurance among undocumented immigrants, the manner in which health care access is “expanded” is of tremendous consequence. Proposals like Joe Biden’s only allow for undocumented immigrants to purchase coverage at full cost on the ACA marketplaces, without access to tax subsidies. Due to excessive cost and the fact that undocumented immigrants live in poverty at twice the rate of U.S. born citizens, it is unlikely for such a policy change to reduce uninsurance amongst this population. Meanwhile, plans like Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All apparently cover all residents of the United States, regardless of immigration status. Such expansive health care reform is controversial in its own right, and should Medicare-for-All or a similar proposal advance through Congress in the future, it seems likely that access—and the extent of that access—to undocumented immigrants will be a dividing point among Democrats, as well as a nonstarter among many Republicans.
Yet the issue merits attention. Because the health care costs of undocumented immigrants are spread across the health care system regardless of whether or not they have access to coverage, it is good policy to curb those costs with preventative care, particularly when we consider the specific health care needs of the population, which in the modern era include significant trauma. A solution could take several forms, ranging from full access to the marketplace and its tax credits; to Medicaid benefits for income-eligible, undocumented children; to expanded funding for Community Health Centers and culturally competent outreach. Whatever that solution may be, it will affect not only the 10.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States but also each and every health care consumer in the country.
 Sixteen states permit undocumented women who are pregnant and meet income guidelines to temporarily access Medicaid by utilizing federal CHIP funding to cover the unborn child, and income-eligible individuals who receive emergency services in an emergency room may be eligible for Medicaid to exclusively cover those costs.