- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

Three lawmakers from Arizona yesterday said hospitals along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2000 lost $200 million in unreimbursed costs in the treatment of illegal aliens and they want the federal government to come up with some cash to keep the facilities open.

"Unless we act now to reimburse states and local health care providers for the cost of federally mandated care to illegal immigrants, more hospitals will be forced to cut costs and possibly close their doors," said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Kyl, along with Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jim Kolbe, both Arizona Republicans, presented a study showing that the 77 hospitals along the U.S.-Mexico border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas face "a medical emergency."

The 133-page study, by the U.S.-Mexico Border Counties Coalition, said one in four dollars of uncompensated emergency medical costs for the Southwest border hospitals was attributable to undocumented migrants.

The study calculated the losses at $79 million in California, $74 million in Texas, $31 million in Arizona and $6 million in New Mexico. It also said that emergency service providers incurred another $13 million in uncompensated costs.

"I've been shouting from the rooftops for a long time about this problem, but to no avail," said Mr. Kolbe, adding that federal law requires that hospitals and emergency personnel screen, treat and stabilize anyone who seeks emergency medical care regardless of income or immigration status.

"No one denies that there is a moral and legal obligation to provide care, but the question remains on who is responsible for paying the bill," he said.

Mr. Kyl and Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, will introduce legislation soon that will reimburse states and health care providers $200 million a year for the cost of emergency treatment, $134 million to the 17 states with the highest numbers of undocumented aliens and an additional $66 million to states with the highest numbers of undocumented alien apprehensions.

"We have an opportunity here to provide some necessary relief to the many hospitals facing huge financial burdens," Mr. Kyl said, although he noted he was not optimistic the legislation would pass. Similar bills he has introduced over the past five years have languished in committee.

"We knew that until we could demonstrate facts and figures, the people wouldn't believe it," Mr. Kyl said, pointing to the border study. "The losses are staggering and more people are beginning to recognize that a problem exists."

The lawmakers, in arguing for financial assistance from Washington, said that because the federal government had mandated that illegal aliens must be treated at emergency facilities and because it had failed to control the border, allowing illegal immigrants to flood into the United States, the government was responsible for the rising costs.

"The obligation here falls on the federal government," Mr. McCain said. "The states do not control the border, the federal government does and it has failed to do so causing a financial and human crisis."

Hospitals in Arizona are among the hardest-hit by the uncompensated care for illegal immigrants. Last year, University Medical Center in Tucson provided nearly $8 million in emergency medical care to illegal aliens and the Copper Queen Hospital in Bisbee was hit for $200,000 in uncompensated services out of a net operating income of $300,000.

The root of the problem, Mr. Kolbe said, is "an unreasonable" policy of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the U.S. Border Patrol.

"The Border Patrol has an existing health care delivery system for illegal immigrants; however, illegal immigrants must be in the custody of Border Patrol to qualify for reimbursement," he said. "To complicate matters, Border Patrol has an explicit policy of not taking injured illegal immigrants into custody, so they do not have to reimburse the hospitals."

The U.S.-Mexico Border Counties Coalition, consisting of elected officials from counties in the four border states, undertook the study at Mr. Kyl's request to persuade Congress to approve legislation authorizing reimbursements for the hospitals.

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