Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Illegal Health Care Costs Millions

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 9:26 a.m. EDT

Health Care for Illegals Costing U.S. Millions

Undocumented immigrants and residents of northern Mexico who seek medical care in the U.S. are costing Americans hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

All along the U.S.-Mexico border, American hospitals are the place Mexicans go when they need care.

In an emergency, friends or relatives will drive a stricken resident of a border town in Mexico to a U.S. checkpoint - and U.S. ambulances will take the sick individual to a U.S. hospital, where the person is treated and is sometimes sent to more sophisticated facilities for further work, a report in USA Today reveals.

In some cases pregnant women cross the border after going into labor, seeking good medical care and citizenship for their newborn children.

Arizona has been especially hard hit since the mid-1990s, when U.S. border crackdowns in Texas and California resulted in more illegal immigrants seeking entry along the state’s 350-mile border with Mexico.

The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association took a survey and discovered that in 2002, Arizona medical centers reported losses of over $150 million due to treatment of foreign convalescents.

In Tucson, 75 miles north of the border, the University Medical Center will lose $12 million treating Mexicans because they will never be able to pay back the costs of their care.

Hospitals do use international collection companies to pursue payments, but most costs go uncollected, reports USA Today.

University Medical president Greg Pivirotto said, "It's a drain that hurts your ability to render care."

That's an understatement.

Jim Dickson, chief executive officer at Copper Queen hospital in tiny Bisbee, Ariz., has had to lay off about 25 percent of his hospital staff and close the long-term care center and the maternity ward altogether, because of the losses incurred by treating foreign nationals.

Since hospitals are required by law to treat all emergency patients, regardless of nationality or legal status, the medical centers have no choice but to bear the costs - and cut U.S. jobs because of it.

The federal government, after years of pressure from the health-care industry, finally announced last week a plan to reimburse U.S. hospitals for up to 30 percent of the unpaid bills they run up treating foreign nationals.

That still leaves losses of over $100M for the 38 hospitals along the Arizona border.

Because of the lack of facilities in Mexico, U.S. doctors and administrators try to help, sometimes in unusual ways.

"I smuggled a defibrillator across the border in an ambulance because they had no way of measuring your heart," Dickinson says. "We gave them an ambulance because they were transporting patients in the backs of cars."

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