Health Care, Immigrants and Joe Wilson

Washington Matters

Health Care, Immigrants and Joe Wilson

If Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, was trying to unite Democrats last night, he certainly succeeded. I leave it to others (mostly) to comment on how he embarrassed himself and disgraced the Congress when he shouted out, "You lie," in the middle of President Obama's address. Instead, I want to look at the issue that prompted his outburst -- Obama's statement that the health care plans pushed by Democrats won't cover illegal immigrants.

Obama made his comments to knock down a claim that has gained prominence this summer among those who favor a much stricter crackdown on illegal immigration. They run the gamut from GOP lawmakers to conservative talk show hosts to white supremacy groups. Many of them made their presence know with hostile questions at town hall meetings in August.

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Obama's point is that the all of the bills approved by congressional committees include specific language that bars illegal immigrants from benefiting from health care reform plans. That's a fact that can't be disputed, but opponents say it's not nearly enough. notes that many of the chain e-mail attacks this summer pointed to page 50 of the House bill, claiming it provides coverage for illegals. But it doesn't. It only includes a generic clause that says insurers cannot discriminate with regard to "personal characteristics..."  That doesn't mean illegals are home free because it goes on to say "except as otherwise provided in this bill."  And elsewhere in the bill, on page 132, illegal immigrants are specifically barred from any benefits.


Critics also insist the bill would end up providing coverage for illegal immigrants because it doesn't include a mechanism for verifying citizenship. They say that without a foolproof method, illegals will inevitably sneak in. Obviously, some may, but those who do would still have to pay for insurance like everyone else.

The demand for foolproof verification is hardly a practical or reasonable one. It would add a considerable amount to the cost. And no one demands verification for participation in all sorts of other government goodies. Many illegals who pay taxes, for example, were given tax rebates in 2008, when Bush was president, rebates championed by Rep. Wilson and many of the other lawmakers who want verification now.

There are two larger points. One is that if we're going to stop illegal immigration, it has to be done at the border and it has to be done by denying jobs to illegals. We can't turn insurers or doctors or hospitals into border police. What's next? Making grocery stores check for proof of citizenship before selling people food?

The second point is that we are already paying for health care for illegal immigrants. When they show up at emergency rooms and don't have insurance, the hospital foots the bill and then passes it along to paying customers in the form of higher rates. One could almost make an argument that we'd be better off letting illegals buy insurance, but I wouldn't dare, and neither will any politician who hopes to get re-elected.

As for Rep. Wilson, I'll leave him to defend himself. He's already apologized to Obama for his rudeness, and his likely opponent in next year's election raised over a hundred thousand dollars in 12 hours.