August 14th, 2009
10:21 AM ET

Will health reform cover illegal immigrants?

By John Bonifield
CNN Medical News Producer

It's a loaded issue - will health reform include coverage for illegal immigrants? President Obama has said no, with a possible exception for children, and the plans being drafted by Congress bar illegal immigrants. However, opponents say that the House bill leaves loopholes that may allow undocumented residents to benefit.

"There's no system for verification," said Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbying group that aims to reduce immigration.

"On the one hand, they have language in there that says illegal aliens are not going to be eligible, but at the same time they're getting a lot of heat from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, from the Hispanic leadership groups, that say we want everybody covered including illegal aliens," Mehlman said. "They're trying to have it both ways here. They're saying to the public, 'Don't worry. Illegal aliens aren't being covered,' and they're turning around to these special interests and saying, 'Well, don't worry. There really is no system to prevent them.'"

In July, Democrats voted down an amendment to the House bill that would have required mechanisms to verify citizenship. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which advocates on behalf of Latinos, said in a statement to CNN that health reform should include legal immigrants who have followed the rules.

"The issue of undocumented immigrants is a separate one that is too often used to confuse the health-care debate. When it comes to undocumented immigrants, the caucus' priority is seeing comprehensive immigration reform enacted," said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a Democrat from New York, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

That's something Obama has said he'd like to see as well - immigration reform that would provide a pathway to citizenship - and legal access to the health plan.

It's estimated that illegal immigrants and their children make up about 17 percent of uninsured people in the U.S., according to recent data by the Pew Hispanic Center. Long-term estimates by the Congressional Budget Office predict that 17 million people will remain uninsured under the reforms of the House bill. Nearly half of them are projected to be illegal immigrants.

Tell us what you think. Should health reform include coverage for illegal immigrants?

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