Finally, the country seems serious about reforming health care. But with discussions about a public option, cost control and competition raging, one aspect of achieving true universal coverage is being left out: what to do about immigrants who lack coverage?
All of the plans getting serious consideration in Congress would exclude undocumented immigrants. Many proposals would even bar access to community health centers and emergency rooms -- a historic shift from America's humanitarian tradition that in an emergency no one should be turned away. Some proposals would exclude legal resident immigrants who have been in the United States for less than five years. Unless the debate takes a different turn, millions of immigrants will be left out of the system.
We should not enshrine discriminatory principles into a new health care system. A "universal" health care program that leaves out millions of Americans is a fraud. Just as we stand up for other core principles in the health care debate -- quality, affordability, a strong public plan -- we need to stand up for immigrant coverage as an essential component of just and effective health care reform.
Without immigrant inclusion, people like Ockwhan Her, a 48 year-old Korean-American mother of two from Los Angeles, will continue being relegated to second class status. Ockwhan, uninsured, couldn't afford to visit the doctor when the pains in her stomach became too great to ignore. It wasn't until a personal emergency forced her to return to Korea that she was able to afford seeing a doctor, and learn that the pain in her stomach was cancer. Even though a legal permanent resident in the United States, our laws bar her from receiving health care benefits that could save her life.
It's worth reminding ourselves of why it's so important for immigrants to be included in our national health care system. Here are some common sense reasons:
- Contrary to right-wing myth, almost all immigrants pay taxes. Excluding immigrants from a tax-funded health care system is simply unfair.
There is no reasonable basis for excluding immigrants from access to health care. It's all about bigotry and fear, including the fears of our political leadership. Even many progressive members of Congress are reluctant to take a stand because they don't want to get in the way of health care "reform."
But until we include everyone, universal coverage will continue to be a myth, and tax payers like Ockwhan will continue to suffer needlessly.