Posted on 15 Sep 2009
Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is leading bipartisan negotiations on health care legislation, on Monday said he would include in his bill a proposal by the Obama White House to bar illegal immigrants from buying health coverage through a new insurance marketplace, or exchange, even if the illegal immigrants were willing and able to pay the full cost.
The White House said that hospitals would still be required to provide emergency treatment to illegal immigrants and that the federal government would continue to reimburse hospitals for unpaid bills, a cost that now runs $250 million a year.
The “bipartisan six,” the subgroup of the Senate Finance Committee working on the health care bill, discussed how to prevent illegal immigrants from benefiting from the proposed legislation at a meeting on Monday morning that also focused on other controversial issues, including abortion.
Negotiators said that their bill would include an immigration status verification requirement — a potentially costly administrative step — for anyone who seeks to obtain insurance through the new government exchange.
One negotiator, Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, said members of the bipartisan six had concluded that even allowing immigrants to purchase their own insurance through the new exchange could be seen as a benefit that would jeopardize support for the legislation.
“It is a judgment about how you advance this package effectively and with any chance of actually passing it,” Mr. Conrad said.
The health care proposals under consideration in Congress would provide subsidies to help low and moderate income Americans purchase health insurance. And early versions of the legislation have all clearly blocked illegal immigrants from receiving such subsidies.
But some immigrant advocates have questioned the logic of barring illegal immigrants from purchasing insurance through the proposed government marketplace, just as they might now, if they can afford to, on the private market.
Under the health care proposals, the government would create a marketplace, or exchange, where consumers would be able to compare and shop for insurance plans that meet new government specifications.
The White House has said that illegal immigrants would be able to purchase insurance outside of the exchange, though at this point it is unclear how much of a market would exist outside of the exchange.
The sensitivity of the immigration issue was highlighted during President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress when Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, shouted, “You lie,” in response to the president’s assertion that illegal immigrants would not be covered by his health care plan.
Mr. Baucus said that his group was focused on the larger goal of providing affordable insurance to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and did not want to be distracted by the immigration issue.
“This is a health care reform bill,” he said. “This is not an immigration bill. We are just trying to do our very best to enact health care reform, affordable high quality health care reform. We just can’t in a lot of other issues that aren’t central, that aren’t core to health care reform.”
Asked if the restriction on purchasing insurance might prove counter-productive by prompting more illegal immigrants to seek emergency room treatment at taxpayer expense, Mr. Baucus said: “There are ways for people to get health care.”
Republicans on the bipartisan six have proposed other limitations, including a five-year waiting period for legal immigrants before they can obtain government subsidies to help them purchase health insurance. Lawmakers and aides said that proposal is the subject of on-going talks.