Illegal immigrants and health care reform

And you thought the uproar over "death panels" had reached a fever pitch. Well, here's another topic making the heated rounds in the health care reform brawls: Should illegal immigrants be eligible for coverage?

First off, none of the plans currently in Congress include illegal immigrants. President Obama and Nancy Pelosi have made a point of underscoring this lately. In fact, up until the town halls got ugly in recent weeks, no one in Congress was even talking about health insurance for illegal immigrants. That hasn't stopped angry opponents from asserting all sorts of false claims -- free insurance to non-citizens, among them. (PolitiFact debunks a that claim, for the record.)

It also hasn't stopped immigrant advocates from asking -- wait a second, what about us?

There's a moral obligation to provide access to health coverage to all Americans, regardless of their immigration status, they say. Any plan that excludes illegal immigrants will fall short, says the advocacy group the National Council of La Raza, considering that illegal immigrants account for 15 percent -- nearly 7 million -- of the nation's 47 million uninsured. But proponents of strict immigration enforcement counter that providing insurance would only encourage more immigrants to flock here illegally.

Thing is, just how much illegal immigrants cost the health care system is unknown and therefore, up for debate. Nearly half the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants don't have health insurance, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan think tank.

Some groups claim this means they are more likely to jam hospital emergency rooms -- which by law can't turn anyone away -- ratcheting up health care costs even higher. But others insist illegal immigrants are actually less likely to clog emergency rooms and have lower health care costs than U.S. citizens.

What is clear is no elected official is likely to touch the incendiary issue, if they can help it. Before coming to the health beat, I covered immigration for eight years. I can think of no other issue that's sure to spark a backlash for politicians already under heavy scrutiny by voters. Couple that with health care reform and oh man, go grab yourself some popcorn and get ready for the drama.

photo from stock.xchng

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