Anyone who thinks illegal immigration is an insignificant wedge issue in this country's already-divisive debate over health care reform need only look at Page 18A of Sunday's Review-Journal. In a picture worth significantly more than a thousand words, three uninsured illegals lie in beds at University Medical Center, receiving emergency dialysis at a cost of between $11,000 and $18,000 apiece.
Eviscerating any claim that illegals impose a miniscule burden on our health care system, the Review-Journal's Paul Harasim reports that 80 illegal immigrants with failing kidneys are receiving about $2 million worth of dialysis treatments each month at UMC. Brian Brannman, UMC's chief financial officer, projects that these 80 people alone will be responsible for about 35 percent of the public hospital's estimated $70 million deficit in the new fiscal year.
Bills for uncompensated care are forwarded to the recession-ravaged taxpayers of Clark County.
"The federal government kicked the can down the road on the immigration issue and gave the bill to us," Mr. Brannman said. "This is a federal policy failure that is driving huge health care costs to our citizens."
On one hand, the federal government rightly denies illegal immigrants eligibility for Medicare and other public health plans. On the other hand, federal law prevents hospitals from refusing to diagnose or treat anyone who requires emergency medical attention, regardless of their immigration status or ability to pay.
And some in Congress bristle at the idea of cracking down on these serial abusers of our emergency services?
Plenty of politicians and liberal special-interest groups argue that taking steps to deny uncompensated care to illegal immigrants is beyond uncompassionate -- it's inhumane. But what about the humanitarian cost of forcing sick and suffering citizens who pay into the system to wait for hours in emergency rooms because of the manpower required to treat nonpaying noncitizens?
"There's no question that these illegals who come for dialysis treatment at emergency rooms back everything up," said Dr. Dale Carrison, UMC's head of emergency services. "And there's also no question that they need help. But this isn't how emergency rooms were meant to be used."
Moreover, what about the humanitarian cost of reducing and dismantling health care services to meet the demands of illegals? How is it compassionate to give away so much costly health care to illegal immigrants that a hospital finally must close its doors, as has happened in California?
Let this government-sponsored mess finally put to rest the myth that the uninsured and poor are dying in the streets because they lack adequate access to health care. If dozens of illegals can get dialysis treatments for years on end without paying for them, then access to health care isn't the problem with this country's medical services.
The most urgent problems are rising costs and unfair cost-shifting. Illegals are a driving force behind both. Where to start?
First, every hospital in Nevada -- public and private, nonprofit and for-profit -- should be demanding proof of citizenship and immigration status from uninsured patients, then notifying U.S. immigration officials and foreign consulates of every uninsured illegal immigrant who receives care.
Federal, state and local governments track every obscure medical statistic at considerable taxpayer expense. At the very least, citizens should get exact figures on how much uninsured noncitizens are costing them in increased tax subsidies and insurance premiums -- and get some assurance that illegals can't continue to game the system by keeping their mouths and wallets shut.
Second, someone has to pay for the untold millions of dollars worth of hospital care provided to illegal immigrants, and it shouldn't be local taxpayers through their struggling community hospitals. Nor should our federal masters simply put the costs on their 14-figure credit card balance.
The U.S. government has the power and standing to bill the home countries of these noncitizens for their health care. No doubt, most of these illegals have been sending a good portion of their wages to family in their native nations, to the benefit of those economies and governments. These countries certainly can afford to send some of that wealth back.
Finally, Nevada authorities, working with the U.S. government, should put foreign countries on notice that their citizens will face immediate deportation if they accrue medical bills they cannot pay. Our legal immigration process demands that incoming residents prove they are healthy and won't be a burden on taxpayer-funded services. Why on earth would we allow ill illegal immigrants to remain here and drain local government treasuries?
Arizona and Florida hospitals have arranged the deportation of nonpaying illegals, so Nevada hospitals must follow suit. If nothing else, this would provide illegals with a powerful incentive to obtain health insurance or leave the United States.
This is not to say we should put seriously ill illegals on a bus to the border and kick them to the curb. They should be treated and made as well as possible before being sent home, with transitionary care arranged by their consulates, whenever possible. That's compassionate. That's a humanitarian solution.
Allowing 80 illegal immigrants to bankrupt this valley's only public hospital is not.