Thursday, December 28, 2006

Health-Costs for Immigrants Have Become National Issue

Los Angeles (AP) -- More than 100,000 undocumented women each year bear children in California with expenses paid by Medi-Cal, according to state reports.

Such births and related expenses account for more than $400 million of the nearly $1 billion that the program spends annually on health care for illegal immigrants in California, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing official records.

California long has been one of the more generous states in offering such benefits to illegal immigrants, covering everything from pregnancy tests to postpartum checkups.

Many illegal immigrants who might otherwise shy away from government services view care associated with childbirth as safe to seek.

``I wasn't afraid at all,'' said Sandra Andrade, an illegal immigrant from Colombia who recently gave birth at a Los Angeles hospital. ``I'd always heard that pregnant women are treated well here.''

Nationally, a debate is simmering about the costs of providing medical care to illegal immigrants.

Anti-illegal immigration groups argue that ``birthright'' U.S. citizenship for babies born in America is an incentive for illegal immigrants to have their children here.

``I think most Americans think that while they certainly don't want to do anything to harm children you cannot have a policy that says anybody in the world come here and have a baby and we have a new American,'' said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, an immigration control group based in Washington, D.C.

Prenatal care is one of the most controversial aspects of providing health care to illegal immigrants.

While labor and delivery long have been considered emergencies, entitled to some federal reimbursement, federal officials have often balked at covering prenatal care. Generally, the state and federal governments share the cost of Medicaid programs, called Medi-Cal in California.

Advocates of such coverage say it's cheaper to pay for prenatal care than risk complications that could saddle the government with huge medical bills.

``Without prenatal care, there's a serious risk that a child will be born with severe disabilities,'' said Lucy Quacinella, a lobbyist for the Los Angeles-based social service nonprofit group Maternal and Child Health Access. ``The cost of caring for that child over a lifetime is astronomical when you compare the cost of having provided the prenatal care.''

Still, investing in pregnant illegal immigrants is costly.

Births and prenatal care are the biggest single outlay by Medi-Cal for illegal immigrants' health care, with the rest going for various other emergency treatments, limited breast and cervical cancer treatment, abortions and some nursing home care, according to the state.

In Los Angeles County's public and private hospitals, undocumented women accounted for 41,240 Medi-Cal births in 2004, roughly half the deliveries covered by the public program.

In the four county-run hospitals alone, undocumented women and their newborns will receive more than $20 million in delivery, recovery, nursery and neonatal ICU services this year, according to a county estimate.