Union Tribune

September 27, 2002

Border areas hit hard by health care costs
Aid sought from U.S. government


WASHINGTON Health care systems in counties along the Mexican border are being crushed by the cost of providing emergency care to
undocumented immigrants, federal and county lawmakers said yesterday as they called on the federal government to pick up a $200 million annual tab.

The officials said the federal government has thrust the counties into crisis by failing to control the border and requiring hospitals to
provide care to anyone in need of emergency care, regardless of
immigration status.

"When the federal government's failure or inability to carry out their
responsibilities causes this financial and human crisis in our states,
it has to be fixed and it has to be fixed quickly," said Sen. John
McCain, R-Ariz.

McCain joined officials from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to roll out a comprehensive tally of the costs.

The report, "Medical Emergency: Costs of Uncompensated Care in Southwest Border Communities," estimated that 17 border counties were socked with $190 million in unpaid bills for emergency health care to undocumented immigrants in 2000.

The report estimated that San Diego County spent $76 million and
Imperial County spent $2.8 million to care for illegal immigrants.

Don Stapley, a supervisor in Arizona's Maricopa County, far north of the border, said the problem isn't restricted to border counties. Stapley said his county spent $50 million to treat undocumented immigrants in 2001.

Stapley said the Maricopa County Medical Center, about 170 miles north of the border, last year recorded 6,000 births. About 80 percent of the mothers were illegal immigrants, Stapley said, many of them from families that have settled in the county and become active in its economic life.

The news conference also produced anecdotes about Mexicans who had crossed the border to get free medical care.

Robin Herskowitz, one of the Texas consultants who wrote the federally funded report, told of a group of pregnant Mexican women all of them undocumented who arrived via bus at an Imperial County hospital.

In an interview, Herskowitz said she learned of the women from a
hospital administrator who "described looking out the window and seeing a busload of pregnant women waiting to go into labor." Anyone who goes into labor is legally entitled to care, she said.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., said the Border Patrol compounds the counties' problem by declining to apprehend illegal immigrants who are injured, in order to avoid paying the immigrants' medical bills. The agents drop the immigrants off at a hospital, Koble said.

"I don't want to suggest this to any terrorist," Kolbe said. "But if you want to be sure to get into the country, get injured and go to the hospital and then walk out of the hospital and be on your merry way."

In a telephone interview, San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob
weighed in on the problem.

"It's a huge financial burden on San Diego taxpayers and it's not
right," she said. "Illegal immigration is a federal responsibility."

The bill introduced in the Senate yesterday would provide $134 million annually to 17 states with the highest number of undocumented immigrants. It would also provide $66 million to the six states where federal officers record the most apprehensions of illegal immigrants.

Staff writer Luis Monteagudo contributed to this report.