Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Some health care officials are urging local governments to start providing health care services for the region’s illegal aliens — or get ready for more outbreaks of contagious diseases like tuberculosis.

“Unless you’re able to do something about the immigration issue, if you cut services to all undocumented … that’s very stupid,” said Francisco Semiao, education and outreach coordinator at George Washington Cancer Institute.

“You’re going to have a bunch of people walking around with who knows what, spreading Lord knows what,” he said. “They ride the Metro seven days a week, and you do the math.”

Although most local hospitals said they do not record a patient’s legal status, some physicians said the fear of deportation deters many illegals from seeking treatment in emergency rooms.

“A lot of people are afraid that if they go to a place they don’t trust, they may be reported to immigration,” said Dr. Elmer Huerta, who in the past decade has treated more than 17,000 Hispanic and immigrant patients at the Cancer Preventorium at Washington Hospital Center.

The local health care officials’ comments came after a recent study showed that fewer than 10 percent of Mexicans living in the U.S. legally or illegally for less than a decade visited an emergency room in the past year.

Among those living in the U.S. for more than a decade legally or illegally, nearly 14 percent visited an emergency room during the past year, according to the study.

The study, which was released last month, was conducted by the University of California and the National Population Council of the Government of Mexico.

The findings of the study reverse the long-held thought that illegals are draining the U.S. health care system and are bringing with them infectious diseases.

“I think that’s a myth,” said Michael Freedman, outreach medical director at Anne Arundel Medical Center’s Annapolis Outreach Center. “For the most part, people that are coming over here, particularly illegally, have a pretty arduous trip to get into this country, and by nature of that trip have to be a pretty healthy person.”

Dr. Todd Taylor, an emergency physician at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, said he thinks the study was conducted improperly because it excludes people younger than 18, a large segment of the legal and illegal populations that use emergency rooms.

“Of the 3.9 million Mexican-headed households, almost 70 percent include immigrants under 18,” he said. “If a proper analysis were done, I think what you’re going to find is the Mexican immigrant population [emergency-room use] is fairly close [to that of U.S. citizens and Mexican-Americans as] other studies have shown.”

While illegals initially may not burden the health care system, those who have lived in the U.S. longer tend to forego immediate preventative care and rack up higher emergency-room bills when they do seek care, local health care officials said.

As a result, hospitals end up eating the cost of treatment, officials said.

“If the hospitals eat it up, the money is going to come from somewhere and you’re going to see higher health care costs,” said Mr. Semiao, who also is a consultant on Hispanic and immigrant health care.

Of the estimated 440,000 annual arrivals from Mexico between 2001 and last year, more than three-quarters crossed into the U.S. illegally, according to the Mexican government.

About 5.5 percent of Mexicans who came to the U.S. within the past decade are now U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey conducted in March 2004.

About 70 percent of illegals who recently came to the U.S. do not have health insurance, according to the study.

About 60 percent of the recently naturalized citizens are more likely to have jobs that offer health benefits, the study showed.

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