Joe Wilson’s one liner during Obama’s address last week brought the topic of illegal immigrants to the forefront of the health care reform debate. Obama was making assurances that illegal immigrants would not benefit from the reform efforts, and Wilson didn’t believe him. Both sides are fired up about this, and it’s a very contentious issue. We’ve already had the abortion issue get dragged into health care reform, and now illegal immigration has added more fuel to the fire. These are subjects that people feel passionately about. Some people might be uninterested in health care refom otherwise, but when you start talking about things like abortion and illegal immigration, it gets attention.
I was chatting with a good friend over the weekend about this issue. She works in a women’s health clinic in Colorado. The vast majority of her patients are uninsured, and the non-profit clinic is mostly funded with government grants. My friend and her co-workers are aware that not all of their patients are in the US legally – the clinic doesn’t ask about immigration status. Most of their patients are employed, working at low-wage jobs that don’t provide any sort of health insurance benefits. Many of them are unable to pay the $5 fee that the clinic charges for most of its tests. In that case, the fee is waived. Some of the patients have no car, and get rides from neighbors to get to the clinic, sometimes coming from 40 miles away for treatment.
My friend’s job is to provide medical care to everyone who comes through her doors, and that’s what she does. She sees them all as people, all deserving of care. She had watched Obama’s speech, and the illegal immigrant issue seemed particularly pointless to her. She mentioned that although there might not be provisions in the upcoming legislation to provide health insurance to illegal immigrants, there are already clinics like hers that provide health care to everyone – regardless of their legal status or lack of health insurance.
I can definitely understand the frustration that people like Joe Wilson feel about this issue. We’re having a tough enough time providing health care for people who are here legally – adding illegal immigrants to the picture doesn’t make it any easier. But how do you tell a person who is desperately ill that they can’t receive treatment because they aren’t in the right country (or because they don’t have health insurance, for that matter)? I have to imagine that it would be tough for a dedicated health professional to turn away truly sick patients because they aren’t supposed to be here in the first place. What if turning them away amounts to a death sentence? Is that a fair price to pay for being in the country illegally? Definitely food for thought…