Undocumented Health Care Costs County Big Bucks

Harris County commissioners say they'd like to see the federal government reimburse more of the health care costs racked-up by undocumented immigrants who use the county's hospital district facilities. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, those costs shot-up to almost $100 million last year.

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In a report released late last week and delivered to commissioners yesterday, the Hospital District said it treated 57,000 undocumented immigrants in fiscal year 2005 at a cost of $97 million, about 14-percent of the district's total operating costs. That's up from the $55 million the district spent on undocumented immigrants in 2002. Commissioner Steve Radack says local taxpayers shouldn't foot most of the bill.

"We don't have a Harris County Border Patrol, so if the federal government allows people to come into Harris County and they come in to present themselves at one of our facilities and we have to treat them. It's a huge cost and I think the cost should be paid for by the federal government and I think we should be reimbursed totally for these people who are here illegally."

The federal government reimburses the county for some of the costs, but not nearly enough to cover the expenses it incurs for treating undocumented immigrants, which is required by law. David Lopez is the president and CEO of the Hospital District.

"Our costs are about $128 million. We do get $31.1 million reimbursed, obviously for the kids that are born and whatever else, but yes, I think it would be helpful if we could get additional reimbursement for the work that we're doing."

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels says because of the government's unfunded mandate, local taxpayers are bearing the burden of treating undocumented immigrants who aren't officially on the tax rolls.

"Essentially we subsidize their employement because they're not in the system. We hope that through this debate in congress that the federal governement will find a way to either enforce the laws or get these folks into a system that will provide a taxpayer to help fund the system or a legal way be on an insurance program for an employer."

Many immigrants do have jobs, but can't afford health insurance or don't work for employers who offer plans. Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia says it would make more sense to use money set aside in Washington to repay the county for what it spends on unreimbursed health care.

"I would submit to you that all those dollars that many immigrants do pay in social security that are sitting in Washington collecting interest unclaimed and not disbursed would be a perfect place for the federal government to look at perhaps giving us some of those dollars to help supplement some of the costs that are incurred by immigrants that we're having to bear at the local level."

The 57,000 undocumented patients treated in Hospital District facilities in fiscal year 2005 made up 20-percent of all patients treated.

Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...