YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Mexican Immigrants Not Burdening ERs, Study Says

Native U.S. citizens are twice as likely to seek hospital services, researchers find.

October 14, 2005|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Recent immigrants from Mexico are half as likely to use emergency rooms as U.S.-born whites and Mexican Americans, according to a study released Thursday by the University of California and the Mexican government.

Fewer than 10% of recent Mexican immigrants -- whether they came in legally or not -- reported using an emergency room in 2000, according to the study, based on an analysis of the U.S. National Health Interview Survey conducted in 2000 by a unit of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Recent immigrants were defined as people who had been in the United States for fewer than 10 years.

In contrast, 20% of U.S.-born whites and Mexican Americans used an emergency room during the same time period.

"The study breaks a lot of the myths.... There are assumptions that immigrants are breaking the economy by using emergency rooms," said Xochitl Castaneda, director of the California-Mexico Health Initiative, an arm of the California Policy Research Center based at the UC Office of the President.

"Even though they are in the most risky occupations, they are not using the emergency rooms as other populations are."

The finding is also significant because recent Mexican immigrants -- who often work in construction or agriculture -- are more likely to require emergency care for accidents or illnesses, Castaneda said.

The issue resonates in Los Angeles County, where officials estimated in 2003 that caring for illegal immigrants who seek emergency and follow-up care costs the county $340 million annually. That has caused consternation among public officials and opponents of illegal immigration.

Some of these opponents were skeptical of the study's results. Hospitals in largely Mexican immigrant areas might see disproportionate effects, said Susan Tully, a national field director for the Federation of American Immigration Reform.

Tully added that the report doesn't take into account how much hospital emergency rooms are paying for treating illegal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants are not only coming into the emergency room for stitches, she said, but for major operations.

"Come back and show us the people they studied and the dollar amount of services that the illegal immigrant population received" for emergency care, Tully said, and compare that with how much was spent on the same proportion of U.S. citizens.

Thursday's findings, however, dovetail with another study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health, which found that, on average, immigrants receive substantially fewer healthcare services than U.S. citizens.

On a per-capita basis, immigrants accounted for 55% less in healthcare expenditures than what was spent on U.S.-born patients, according to an analysis of a federal survey of healthcare spending in the late 1990s.

The study, which included legal and illegal immigrants, was led by Dr. Sarita Mohanty, a professor at USC's Keck School of Medicine.

"Our study refutes the assumption that immigrants represent a disproportionate financial burden on the U.S. healthcare system," Mohanty's article concluded.

The UC-Mexican government study released Thursday also found that:

* More than half of all Mexican immigrants -- or 5.9 million people -- living in the United States lack health insurance.

* Recent immigrants were more likely than U.S.-born whites not to have seen a doctor in the last two years.

* The longer a Mexican immigrant stayed in the United States, the more likely he or she was to report declining health.

"The reality is that because of the low-wage work many of [recent immigrants] do, their condition suffers," said California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who spoke at a news conference at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, where the study was unveiled.

Also, new immigrants may shun needed public services for fear of raising questions about their or their family's immigration status.

Some familiar with the study underscored the importance of providing Mexican immigrants with good healthcare.

Without good health, they won't be able to continue working in physically demanding jobs such as construction, said Mario Gutierrez, who works on binational health issues for the California Endowment, a private health foundation and the chief financial backer of the UC-based California-Mexico Health Initiative.

The Mexican government could allow workers in California to retain their Mexican health insurance and even help return workers to their native country for healthcare, said Elena Zuniga, the general secretary for Mexico's National Population Council.

But that would require the United States to set up programs that would allow temporary workers easy passage across the border, she said.

"The public and policymakers need to realize that this population of binational workers ... are the ones picking the fruits and vegetables that keep you and I healthy," said Dr. Robert K. Ross, president of the California Endowment.

Los Angeles Times Articles