August 28, 2009

August 28, 2009 | Commentary on Health Care, Immigration

Immigration Distrust on Health Bill

Nothing illustrates America's distrust of Congress quite like the illegal immigrant provision of the House health care bill, HR 3200.

President Obama made it the first item in his last radio address:

"I want to spend a few minutes debunking some of the more outrageous myths circulating on the Internet, on cable TV, and repeated at some town halls across this country.

"Let's start with the false claim that illegal immigrants will get health insurance under reform. That's not true. Illegal immigrants would not be covered."

Obama chose his words with great care. Section 246 of the bill -- dealing solely with insurance subsidies -- states: "Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States."

Defenders of the bill frequently quote and display copies of this section at their town hall meetings.

Notice how narrow this is? It says they should not receive the bill's new insurance subsidies. It doesn't say they can't receive taxpayer-paid health care. It doesn't say they can't receive other benefits from HR 3200, such as the expanded Medicaid.

Obama obviously wants to leave the impression that government won't pay health care for illegals. It's a false impression. Here are the two big fallacies with Obama's carefully-chosen and scripted words:

  • There are other avenues for illegal aliens to receive health care at public expense.
  • All efforts to add enforcement language to HR3200 were defeated by mostly party-line votes. We can expect that the bureaucracy would look the other way under Obama's control (just as it has with prior presidents).

Current law says illegal aliens qualify only for emergency medical care through Medicaid. Most of these are childbirths. These costs exceed $3 billion a year. But because few states require proof of legal presence for regular Medicaid, nobody knows the true number of illegals who receive it, or at what cost.

The House bill not only makes a major expansion of Medicaid eligibility but also restricts (in Section 1702) inquiries about immigration status. Efforts to fix this and to add enforcement provisions to HR 3200 were offered in the Ways & Means Committee by Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and in the Energy & Commerce Committee by Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), but voted down. No Democrats supported Heller. Blue Dog Representatives Mike Ross (D-Ark.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Charles Melancon (D-La.), John Barrow (D-Ga.), and Baron Hill (D-Ind.) voted for the Deal proposal.

So we still have the problem as described by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in his op-ed for The Hill:

H.R. 3200 contains gaping loopholes that will allow illegal immigrants to receive taxpayer-funded benefits. And these loopholes are no accident. The legislation contains no verification mechanism to ensure that illegal immigrants do not apply for benefits. Republicans offered an amendment to close this loophole -- it would have required verification using the existing methods that are already in place to verify eligibility for other federal benefits programs. But, when they were asked to put the language of the bill where their words were, in a party-line vote, House Democrats rejected the amendment to require verification and close this loophole.

Our media, unfortunately, don't seem to understand. They persist in an Obama-friendly minimal analysis, saying simplistically that the bill excludes coverage for illegal aliens. For example:

  • A recent Associated Press story devoted to "myth vs. fact" states simply, "THE FACTS: The proposals being negotiated do not provide coverage for illegal immigrants."
  • The website claims it is "false" that "illegal immigrants will be covered."
  • Consumer Reports calls it "the myth that will not die."

Those media evidently believe government can magically exclude illegals even in the absence of a screening system.

But history shows our social welfare bureaucracy is quite adept at finding loopholes to help illegal aliens. One example is food stamps.

Federal regulations [7 CFR 273.4 (b)] explicitly require that immigration authorities must be notified if they learn that an illegal alien is within a household applying for Food Stamps.

However, a "Catch 22" was created by the Clinton administration. In an "Interagency Notice (65 Fed. Reg. 58301, Sept. 28, 2000), bureaucrats were told that unless a person has already had a hearing and been formally determined to be an illegal immigrant, no government agency really "knows" that they are illegal -- so they need not be turned in.

It's just another example of how laws are bypassed when it comes to illegal immigration.

Only if you believe that our immigration laws are well-enforced can you believe that HR 3200 will not expand public benefits for illegal aliens. And if you believe that, I've got a certain bridge you might want to buy.

Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First Appeared in Human Events