Daily Breeze

May 19, 2004

House defeats bill to deny care for illegal immigrants

By TOBY ECKERT
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Legislation by a South Bay congressman that would have allowed hospitals to curb care to illegal immigrants, and required caregivers to report those who sought emergency treatment, was soundly defeated Tuesday by the House.

The bill, which also could have made many employers of undocumented immigrants liable for their emergency care, failed on a 331-88 vote. It was opposed by medical providers and Latino groups, which argued that it would have turned nurses and doctors into de facto immigration agents and discouraged immigrants from seeking care.

Sponsoring Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, also blamed "big business" for lobbying against the legislation and vowed it "will live to fight another day." Rohrabacher represents parts of Orange County, the Harbor Area and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

However, House Republican leaders, wary of alienating Latino voters in an election year, seem eager to put the issue behind them. They promised Rohrabacher a vote on the controversial bill to win his support for sweeping Medicare legislation that narrowly passed the House last year.

The Medicare bill created a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens. It also included $1 billion in federal reimbursements to health-care providers in Los Angeles and other high-immigration areas for emergency treatment of undocumented im-migrants who lack health insurance or other means to pay.

Under Rohrabacher's bill, hospitals would have been eligible for the payments only if they provided information about the illegal immigrants to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration.

Hospitals would have been allowed to refuse treatment if an illegal immigrant could be sent to his or her home country "without a significant likelihood of material deterioration of medical condition of the alien" or, in the case of an illegal immigrant in active labor, of the child.

Care that costs more than $50,000, involved an organ transplant, or that was for a condition that existed before the person entered the United States could also have been denied.

Under current law, hospitals are required to provide emergency care regardless of a person's immigration status or ability to pay.

Employers who didn't verify the immigration or citizenship status of their workers would have been liable for health-care costs incurred by them, according to the bill.

Rohrabacher said illegal immigrants account for nearly half the $21 billion in uncompensated health-care costs reported by hospitals each year.

"Then they act surprised when even more tens of millions of illegals flood into our country," he said.

But Rep. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, called the bill "shameful," saying it would dis-criminate against millions of uninsured Americans.

"If Mr. Rohrabacher had his way, and you were rolled into an emergency room and lacked health insurance, his bill would have required medical personnel to ask you whether you lived here legally or not, instead of focusing on your immediate health needs," Menendez said.

Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Escondido, and Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, were among the 86 Republicans and two Democrats who voted for Rohrabacher's bill.

Among the 197 Democrats and 133 Republicans and one independent who opposed it were California Reps. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo; Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles; and Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Carson.

A report released two years ago estimated that 17 border counties provided $190 million in uncompensated care to illegal immigrants in 2000, the last year for which figures were available. No figures were available for Los Angeles County.

California will get about $72 million in each of the next four years for emergency care under the Medicare law, according to an estimate by the California Institute for Federal Policy Research. The money will be available to hospitals, physicians, ambulance services and tribal health-care facilities.