Ubiñas: Undocumented immigrants aren't getting free health care

Demonstrators at Philadelphia International Airport protest President Trump's travel ban on Jan. 29, 2017.

Angry Nurse was a surprise.

I expected some grief after writing about a group of Philadelphia emergency room doctors who asked Sen. Pat Toomey to reject President Trump’s travel ban, the latest of which has been blocked again.  Here’s hoping the third time is not the charm.

But I did not expect it from a fellow health-care provider, who I figured would be familiar enough with her own field to distinguish fact from fiction.  

But there was Angry Nurse going off on my Facebook page.

“You are ill informed,” she wrote. “I work in a burn center in the suburbs. We never reject anyone nor do we ask if they are a citizen or an illegal alien. We administer top notch care. The problem is that the hospital does not get paid. It is the tax payers that pay the bill !!!!”

My kingdom for just one angry email from someone who actually read what I wrote. And for people to understand that human beings are not aliens. 

The whole column was about ER doctors concerned about an increase in immigrant patients who are afraid to seek care or give personal information, and their efforts to convey that all patients would be  treated despite their status. Besides the letter, one doctor was leading a campaign to come up with a way to signal to all patients that they were safe. More on that later.

While I had her, I told Angry Nurse that undocumented immigrants pay $12 billion in taxes every single year. So, they are taxpayers.

Camera icon Dr. Bon Ku
Doctors gathered at South by Southwest to fight fear among their immigrant patients designed these boluttons to show them that they will care for them regardless of their immigration status.

I’m not sure why I’m not using her name, since she posted publicly. Maybe because I hold out hope that she and others who choose rhetoric over reality can still be reached. (And people call me a cynic?)

Because, in case you missed it, in the era of Trump, it’s not enough for marginalized people to take crap. They have to explain that no, they aren’t rapists or bad hombres just because they’re Mexican.

Explain that no, they aren’t predators because they support transgender bathrooms.

Explain that no, they aren’t terrorists because they’re Muslim.

Explain that no, they aren’t getting free health care just because they are undocumented immigrants.

Angry Nurse again: “You are not addressing the fact that we the tax payers pay for their hospital bills !!!”

“Maybe you read over what I just posted?" I responded. “Undocumented immigrants pay $12 billion in taxes every single year. No amount of exclamation points changes that fact.”

I wished her a good day. And she wished me one as well.

Had the information I offered gotten through, I wondered,  or did she just wear herself out with all those exclamation points?

Who knows? But I wanted to arm myself with more information for the next time I heard from her – because you know there will be a next time.

So, I read through a lot of articles and studies about unauthorized immigrants’ health spending, which all seemed to boil down to this:

 No, undocumented immigrants aren’t a burden on the health-care system.

In fact, one study published in 2013 in Health Affairs, the leading journal of health policy thought and research, showed that “just 7.9 percent of unauthorized immigrants benefited from public-sector health care expenditures, compared to 30.1 of US natives.”

 I also reached out to a doctor who authored many of these studies.  Leah Zallman, assistant director of research at the Institute for Community Health and instructor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, who has extensively studied this issue.

When I told her about Angry Nurse, she was graciously empathetic to a fellow health-care worker. There are cases of undocumented immigrants getting care they cannot pay for. But those are the exception, not the rule.

“The point that we have tried to make through our studies is that [undocumented immigrants] are young, they’re healthy, they do contribute, they do use health-care expenditures and some of that is paid for by the government," Zallman said. "But as a whole they use very little care and they do pay into the government as well.” Undocumented immigrants provided a surplus of $35.1 billion to the Medicare Trust Fund between 2000 and 2011, per a Journal of General Internal Medicine study that Zallman led. 

My disgust with Angry Nurse is only outweighed by the amazing doctors who wrote that letter to Toomey and Bon Ku, a physician with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, who with the help of group of impassioned people from all walks of life at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, came up with buttons to signal to patients that they are safe. Hopefully, the apolitical #StandWithAllPatients message will catch on.

I'll be sending a few to Angry Nurse.

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