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Immigration bill will help Cook County

Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Toni Preckwinkle

Comprehensive immigration reform can’t come to Cook County soon enough.

Momentum in Washington appears to be on the side of reform. The Senate Judiciary Committee has quickly marked up the 844-page bill and may vote on it as soon as Wednesday.

And by early June the full Senate is expected to take up the legislation, the most ambitious overhaul of the immigration system in a generation.

What happens in Congress will have implications in Cook County, saving taxpayers money and providing better health care to our residents.

By our estimates there are as many as 200,000 undocumented immigrants in Cook County without health insurance. Based on income levels, approximately 80 percent of those uninsured individuals would qualify for assistance in the state health-care exchanges if they had citizenship or legal immigrant status — which the bill being debated would grant them, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Last year undocumented immigrants accounted for roughly 22 percent of the uncompensated care we provided at the Cook County Health and Hospital System. That amounts to $118 million worth of services. 

Many of the patients who rely on our hospitals seek episodic care in our emergency rooms. Access to insurance for these patients would allow the county to better manage their health through preventive treatment while also reducing the cost of care. And that means saving taxpayers money.

At Cook County hospitals we serve everybody, regardless of their immigration status, because we believe access to health care is a basic human right.

Once we have comprehensive immigration reform, that care would be reimbursed by the federal government.

Right now, it is only after a five-year waiting period that legal immigrants who meet certain income requirements become eligible for Medicaid. That’s too long to wait. All we have to do is look at 2012 Census data to see how the need will continue to increase.

Last year, Cook County’s population grew by 17,000. Much of that gain came from an influx of immigrants.

We welcome immigrants. They are essential to the county maintaining its population and its place as the second-largest county in the country.

Under the Senate plan being considered, once immigrants are granted probationary legal status, they would be allowed to work but would be barred from getting federal public benefits, including Medicaid. The 13-year path to earned citizenship will be a steep climb.

In Cook County, the long-term sustainability of our health-care system will be transformed by a sweeping rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws.

Toni Preckwinkle is president of the Cook County Board.

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