Documented and undocumented immigrants have paid about $14 billion more annually into Medicare than they have received in benefits, according to a new study published in Health Affairs, the Los Angeles Times' "Politics Now" reports. According to "Politics Now," the report challenges the long-held, popular belief that immigrants are draining resources from the program (Levey, "Politics Now," Los Angeles Times, 5/29).
Harvard Medical School researchers -- who examined data from Census Bureau and HHS surveys -- found that immigrants received fewer benefits and paid more into the program largely because, as a group, they are younger on average than U.S.-born residents and therefore less eligible for benefits (Tavernise, New York Times, 5/29). Currently, fewer than 60% of U.S.-born residents are between the ages of 18 and 64, compared with 80% of the estimated 40 million foreign-born residents.
The authors also noted that many immigrants pay taxes that help fund the program but are not eligible for its benefits. For example, many undocumented immigrants use fake Social Security numbers to work, which means they and their employers pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. However, such residents are ineligible for either program. The Affordable Care Act also prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining other health benefits, such as the insurance subsidies intended to help U.S. residents purchase coverage through the health insurance exchanges that launch next year ("Politics Now," Los Angeles Times, 5/29).
Separate research also has found that immigrants tend to be healthier and have lower mortality rates, according to the New York Times. Leighton Ku, director of George Washington University's Center for Health Policy Research, said that medical costs for immigrants are about 14% to 20% lower than U.S.-born residents (New York Times, 5/29).
Medicare is funded by payroll taxes paid by employers and workers. The Harvard researchers estimated that immigrants paid about $33 billion in payroll taxes to the program in 2009, while being responsible for an estimated $19 billion of the program's medical expenses. Overall, the researchers estimated that immigrants contributed about $115 billion more to Medicare than they used from 2002 to 2009 ("Politics Now," Los Angeles Times, 5/29). According to the New York Times, the delineation between how much documented immigrants versus undocumented immigrants contributed to the program is unclear (New York Times, 5/29).
In contrast, U.S.-born residents accounted for an almost $31 billion deficit to the program, according to the study.
Congress Debates Immigration Legislation
The report comes amid congressional debate on an immigration overhaul bill (S 744) that could determine whether or not immigrants will receive health care benefits through the ACA ("Politics Now," Los Angeles Times, 5/29).
The legislation also includes a "pathway" to citizenship for undocumented residents that eventually would make them eligible for Medicare benefits. Critics have argued that such a pathway would lead to increased costs in the program, at a time when the program is running short on funding (Heavey, Reuters, 5/29).
The program's main trust fund is slowly being depleted by an influx of baby boomers into the program and rising health care spending. Medicare's hospital insurance trust fund is expected to become insolvent in 2024 ("Politics Now," Los Angeles Times, 5/29).
However, the study's findings indicate that policies reducing immigration would weaken Medicare, while encouraging immigration could strengthen it. The authors said the benefits of increasing the pool of younger U.S. residents contributing to Medicare outweigh any potential future increases in the program's costs (Reuters, 5/29). Ku said, "Without immigrants, the Medicare trust fund would be in trouble sooner" (New York Times, 5/29).
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