by Ryan Biehle, Health Policy Associate

In recent months, the immigration reform debate has risen to the top of the national agenda. Colorado’s Senator Michael Bennet is even leading the charge as a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that tackled the challenge of drafting a bill. It was a small step on Tuesday, then, when the Senate voted to debate S. 744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” So what does this measure have to do with health? Quite a lot, it turns out.

This month, a report released by Human Impact Partners (HIP) detailed the health impacts of our current immigration policy primarily on children. The bottom line: 152,000 U.S.-born children in 2012 were affected by deportation of at least one family member in the household. These circumstances can lead to poorer child mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suffering from lower household income, which we know is one determinant of poor health throughout a person’s lifetime. The adult partners of those who are deported also suffer an average premature loss of 2.2 years of life. 

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the undocumented are not eligible for Medicaid benefits except in certain emergency situations, nor can they purchase plans in the insurance marketplaces that open for enrollment later this year. As a result of poorer access to public assistance and lower incomes relative to U.S. citizens, undocumented families tend to also have lower utilization of medical services.  In fact, undocumented immigrants accounted for just 1.4% of medical spending between 2000-2009  – perhaps a surprising fact to many, but one that compounds the issues identified in the HIP report. Lower access and utilization of care early on can mean fewer preventive care visits that otherwise improve health, as well as more expensive emergency care down the road.

This issue hits close to home for Colorado. Estimates suggest there will still be roughly 136,000 uninsured, undocumented residents in the state after the ACA is fully implemented.  Ensuring this population has access to the health care they need when they need it will remain a challenge.

The findings of the HIP study highlight some important issues that the Senate would do well to consider in its debate over the immigration reform bill. Establishing a path to citizenship, border security, guest worker programs and more will all be part of the discussion, so thinking about the health implications for the millions of undocumented individuals and families that will be affected by the bill makes sense too. With such a dramatic effect on individual and family health, the costs are too high to ignore.

HIP: Family Unity, Family Health: How Family-Focused Immigration Reform Will Mean Better Health for Children and Families

Variations in Healthcare Access and Utilization Among Mexican Immigrants: The Role of Documentation Status



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