Thomas Elias: Will illegals get first crack at universal health care? |

Thomas Elias: Will illegals get first crack at universal health care?

Straight from the Department of Extreme Irony comes the fresh possibility that illegal immigrants may actually be getting universal health insurance before either American citizens or legal immigrants.

This would be highly ironic, of course, because one of the most frequent canards hurled against foreigners living here illegally is that they pose an extreme burden on health care systems, visiting emergency rooms for everything from the common cold to cancer treatments and delivery of babies.

Never mind the reality that, at least in California, illegal immigrants visit emergency rooms about half as often as American citizens, according to a 2005 University of California study. Never mind also that the California Hospital Association estimates undocumented immigrants account for barely 10 percent of the $7 billion in uncompensated care given out last year by the state’s hospitals.

The possibility that illegal immigrants – about 84 percent of whom come from Mexico – might soon get universal health care stems from a new approach to them by the Mexican government. Rather than look upon illegals purely as cash cows useful only for the billions of dollars they send home regularly (comprising more than 15 percent of the Mexican gross national product) and the absentee votes they might someday cast for Mexican politicians, the new government of President Felipe Calderon actually wants to do something for its expatriates in America.

“They’re here, but they’re ours,” Calderon’s newly-installed health minister, Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos, said during a springtime California visit. “Right now, the care (for them) is insufficient.”

Cordova, a former hospital administrator and medical school director, announced plans to meet with American health officials every six months and said he is working to extend to Mexican citizens living here the same kind of basic universal health care Calderon promised other Mexicans during his campaign last year.

“We can build a new model for taking care of the health needs of Mexican workers here,” Cordova said.

That would be a real positive, as the health of the approximately 3 million illegals in California now is crucial to overall public health. With illegals concentrated in fields like restaurant work, child care and household and office cleaning – plus fruit and vegetable picking – any diseases they carry are likely to be transmitted quickly to the general populace. Yet, the UC study found that as of just two years ago, Mexican immigrants were less likely than any other ethnic group in California to seek regular preventive health care. That’s why even though Mexican immigrants generally arrive in California with excellent health, it often deteriorates within two to three years of their arrival.

To change this Cordova proposes a plan that would have insurance costs shared among Mexican workers, their American employers and the Mexican government.

Even though Cordova and other Mexican officials believe both the United States as a whole and individual states benefit greatly from the economic boost of cheap labor provided by Mexican immigrants, the tentative Mexican proposal does not call for any payments from American taxpayers.

If it becomes reality, a universal health plan would more than double the number of insured among Mexican immigrants in California from today’s 43 percent level. By contrast, 89 percent of California whites born in America now have insurance coverage of some kind, with 85 percent of non-whites born in this country also covered.

It’s uncertain, of course, how all this might tie in with the universal health insurance plans of both Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger and state legislators who have put forward a variety of plans.

What is certain, though, is that the very idea of the Mexican government sharing the costs of coverage for its citizens working here is a step forward. It marks the first time any Mexican official has actually offered to help better the lot of his expatriate countrymen, whether their immigrant status is legal or not, rather than simply demanding that the U.S. or state governments do it all.


Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at

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