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In hard times, illegal immigrants lose healthcare

In California, some counties consider screening them out from nonemergency services.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2009

CUTBACKS: Mariela Ocegoeda (r.) waits with her three month-old son at the Martinez Health Center in Contra Costa County, Calif. The county is planning to cut nonemergency healthcare to illegal immigrants.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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Los Angeles ­

Jose Cedillo, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, says he has nowhere to turn.

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A day laborer since 1986, Mr. Cedillo has received notice from a Los Angeles County hospital that he must start paying out of pocket for the treatment he will need. "I have no choice because I have no insurance and can't work while I'm taking these treatments," he says, sitting in the tiny apartment he shares with his wife, a janitor.

The recession – and a big state deficit ­– is leading some California counties to cut back on nonemergency health services to illegal immigrants. In others, cutbacks in services for the uninsured are hitting illegal immigrants especially hard.

The problem is socking California because it is home to the lion's share of US immigrants, both legal and illegal. The latter are often eligible for healthcare provided to the poor. But health departments across the country are facing budget pressures that are leading to slashed services – and that could reignite the debate over providing medical care to illegal immigrants.

"There simply isn't enough revenue to support the network of services which heretofore has been expected," says Robert Pestronk, executive director of National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).

In many states, budget cuts mean reduced funding for the uninsured, many of whom are immigrants and low-income families. In Arizona, a $13 million cut from the state budget eliminated funds partly used to reimburse hospitals for caring for the uninsured.

About 64 percent of illegal immigrants nationwide ­– 7.2 million ­– are uninsured, according to the Washington-based, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).

"The states and local governments tend to bear the brunt of illegal immigration," says Steve Camarota, statistician and demographer for CIS. Now, with revenues falling well short of predictions, services to undocumented immigrants are getting the ax in an effort to preserve other programs, from infrastructure to schools to the environment.

The cutbacks could potentially refire the debate over providing social services such as healthcare for illegal immigrants. In 2007, several state legislatures introduced bills that sought to limit social service benefits including healthcare to illegal immigrants. An LA Times/Bloomberg survey in December 2007 found that one in three Americans wanted to deny social services, including public schooling and emergency-room healthcare, to illegal immigrants.

In California, two counties are pulling back on health services for illegal immigrants.

Sacramento County closed two health clinics that serve the poor and ended services with various mental health contractors in early February, saving nearly $6 million in an effort to close a $55 million general fund shortfall.

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