Unlike former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, Democrats in Congress decided as they worked on health care reform that providing coverage to the estimated 11.5 million undocumented residents in the U.S. would not be a good idea.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say that many of them were unwilling to vote for a reform bill enabling undocumented residents to buy coverage on the state health insurance exchanges out of fear that doing so might jeopardize their re-election chances. The bill that became Obamacare contains language singling out the undocumented as ineligible.
Schwarzenegger wasn’t as worried about his political future when he proposed a plan in January 2007 that was similar to the one enacted in Massachusetts under then-Governor Mitt Romney. Schwarzenegger’s plan had one notable difference: it would have required every Californian — including all of the state’s 2.6 million undocumented residents — to have health insurance (The Massachusetts law does allow the undocumented to receive state-funded care through the Health Safety Net program for low-income persons). Schwarzenegger was feeling pretty secure politically at the time. Just two months earlier he had been re-elected in a landslide, winning 56 percent of the vote to Democrat Phil Angelides’ 38.9 percent.
Schwarzenegger’s reasoning was that undocumented immigrants who went to hospital emergency rooms for care but couldn’t pay their bills were taking advantage of the state’s taxpayers.
“In California, the cost of emergency room care for undocumented immigrants is nearly a billion dollars a year,” Schwarzenegger’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Kim Belshe, told PBS NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill back then. “We are required under federal law — hospitals are required, I should say — under federal law to provide services through emergency rooms, which is appropriate and humane. But emergency rooms are the least appropriate, most costly setting. And that is a huge tax burden that California taxpayers are experiencing.”
Like Romney’s reform plan — and Obamacare — Schwarzenegger’s proposal was based on the largely Republican concept of “shared responsibility.”
“This is not a proposal that looks only to government to fix the problem, only to employers, only to any one sector,” Belshe told Ifill. “It is shared responsibility, beginning with the individual, but supported by government, by employers, by health plans and health providers.”
This story is part of Wendell Potter. Former CIGNA executive-turned-whistleblower Wendell Potter writes about the health care industry and the ongoing battle for health reform. Click here to read more stories in this blog.
Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.