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Per capita spending for immigrant health care far less than for U.S. citizens

Program eligibility restrictions and economic conditions restrain health care access for noncitizens, a new study says.

By Doug Trapp — Posted March 3, 2010

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Annual health spending on noncitizen immigrants is about half the spending on native U.S. citizens, largely because many noncitizens lack jobs with health insurance and are ineligible for most public coverage, according to "Trends in Health Care Spending for Immigrants in the United States," published in the March Health Affairs.

Average per-person health care spending for noncitizens was $1,904 in 2006, compared with $3,723 for citizens, according to the study. Public spending on noncitizens also was relatively low. Between 1999 and 2006, it averaged $780 annually for noncitizens and $1,200 for U.S. natives, the article concluded.

"There's a reluctance to use a lot of services on the part of noncitizens," said Eric Rodriguez, a vice president at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group. Rodriguez said the article's numbers are fairly consistent with estimates in other studies.

Although immigrants do not receive disproportionate amounts of health care -- as some critics of U.S. immigration policy have alleged -- increasing their access to health insurance or providing a pathway to citizenship likely would increase health spending, according to Jim P. Stimpson. He is a study co-author and assistant professor of behavioral sciences at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 8.5 million immigrants came to the U.S. between 1999 and 2006. This wave helped increase the foreign-born share of the population to 13% in 2008, according to Pew Hispanic Center estimates -- the highest percentage since 1930.

Noncitizen immigrants may use less health care than native citizens, but the cost is "still a significant burden on the American public," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors reducing immigration levels.

Physicians, hospitals and other health care professionals were less likely to be paid for noncitizen care than for treating U.S. natives, the study found. About 13% of noncitizens had at least one uncompensated care visit in 2006, compared with 11% of citizens.

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