A new report finds that the children of undocumented immigrants frequently go without medical care because they lack insurance, and it calls for lifting the ban on insuring them through Pennsylvania’s health insurance program for children, CHIP.
Based on a survey of 53 families, the report from the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth found that the majority of Pennsylvania’s 24,000 undocumented children don’t see doctors because of a lack of insurance. Their parents often wait until problems have grown complex and expensive before seeking care.
The cost of reimbursing hospitals for this uncompensated care is ultimately more expensive than insuring the children, said Colleen McCauley, PCCY’s health director and the author of the report.
“We can pay up front before small problems turn into big problems, or we can pay on the back end,” said McCauley in a conference call with reporters.
She was joined by physicians who described the challenge of treating uninsured children.
“I’ve seen things like dental infections that have turned into bone infections with permanent bone and tooth damage, ear infections that have caused permanent damage to the tympanic membrane,” said Dr.Katherine Yun of the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. “Something that could have been taken care of with a $4 antibiotic becomes something that might need repeated surgeries.”
Insuring the children would help set them up for more productive lives, she said.
“We see this as a real opportunity to help children … for making children be happy, productive, and thriving without having any treatable health conditions holding them back,” said Yun.
The alternative, McCauley said, is for taxpayers and hospitals to keep covering the cost of uncompensated care, through Medicaid reimbursements and other means. She estimates it costs about twice as much to cover a child’s uncompensated care as to insure that child for a year.
But she knows that getting children into the CHIP program will be an uphill battle. The Pennsylvania House has already passed legislation reauthorizing the program, and the ban on covering undocumented children remains in place. It now awaits a vote in the Senate, where advocates hope to convince legislators to rewrite the language to match that of California, New York and Massachusetts, where undocumented children are eligible.
“At least 202,000 children have gained access this way,” McCauley said. “Pennsylvania ought to follow the example of other states and offer coverage.”