Illegal aliens and the cost to Arizona’s hospitals

Since entering the Senate in 1995 I have worked to inform people in Washington about the problems we face in Arizona because of porous borders and the importance of controlling our borders to protect our national security.

I have sponsored and co-sponsored a number of bills to strengthen the resources of our border law enforcement, including recent legislation to dramatically increase the number of Border Patrol agents, along with funding for technology and other resources. Washington is finally beginning to recognize the dire need for America to enforce its immigration laws and secure our borders.

The problem of illegal immigration has been building for a long time and will not be resolved overnight. At present, it’s overburdening many of our communities in a wide variety of ways.

Health care is but one example. For a long time, the federal government has required hospitals to treat anyone who appears at an emergency room whether or not they can pay. If someone is having a heart attack, for example, the emergency room responds, even though officials may find out later that the person is an indigent; and more and more, they are finding that the patients are illegal immigrants.

This federal requirement to treat all emergency patients is unlikely to be changed. We should not leave hospitals holding the bag, however. Forcing them to bear the costs of the federal government’s failure to control the border jeopardizes their ability to provide quality care for all of us.

The estimated annual cost to hospitals and other providers of emergency health care nationwide for illegal aliens is $1.45 billion. According to congressionally-commissioned research from the MTG Corporation, the annual cost to just the 24 counties along the border in Texas, New Mexico and California exceeds $200 million, and for Arizona’s four border counties alone it’s $32 million per year.

These unreimbursed costs, and other health-related issues, have put Arizona hospitals in a state of dire fiscal emergency. As a result, some have closed, or are in danger of having to close their emergency rooms and other services.

Copper Queen Hospital in Bisbee, for example, closed its ob/gyn department for several months because it had to provide labor and delivery services for illegal immigrants on an emergency basis and received no compensation. Maricopa County Hospital incurred uncompensated costs of over $1 million just to treat two burn victims.

To help keep our hospitals open, I was successful in getting Congress to adopt an amendment to the Medicare reform bill of 2003 to provide $1 billion in reimbursement over four years, of which Arizona providers are slated to receive $180 million, or up to $45 million per year.

The reimbursement program should help raise national awareness of the costs related to illegal immigration. People in many northern states have no idea that illegal immigration is a major problem because it’s not perceived as their problem. The reality is that illegal immigration is a genuinely national issue, and resolving it requires a national commitment not just on health care but also border control, law enforcement and other resources. We need the political will to vigorously enforce immigration laws.

In the meantime, we’ve got to protect services like emergency medical care for Arizona’s citizens. It’s only fair that the federal government reimburse hospitals for the emergency care they are required to provide.

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