Ariz. legislator wants hospitals to track free care to the undocumented

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- Some will call a new illegal immigration proposal at the capitol "a message bill."  But Rep. Steve Smith, R-District 11, said he just wants to gather needed information.  His bill is designed to track how many undocumented immigrants are getting free care at Arizona hospitals.

“I get asked from constituents all the time,” Smith said.  “How much money does Arizona spend on free services for illegal aliens? And the answer is, we have no clue.”

Smith said HB 2293 would require hospitals to do two things. If a patient doesn't have insurance, hospital staff has to confirm a person’s legal presence in the country using ID or documents. If they think the patient is here illegally, they would then be required to call police.

Certain nationalities are exempt under a federal program, but the bill specifically exempts Canadians.

“When you tie it to the visa waiver program,” we asked.  “It seems blatantly discriminatory toward Latin American countries.”

“Why?” Smith responded.

“Because none of them are part of that program,” we pointed out.

“OK,” Smith said.

“So is it or is it not?” we asked.  “Are you mostly worried about Mexicans because that's who we are dealing with in Arizona?”

“No. Canadians do not need non-immigrant visas,” Smith responded.  “So if the question is, what about Canadians?  They don't need non-immigrant visas when they are in this country.  People from Latin America do. People from many other countries around the world do.”

Smith said the bottom line is people would still get the treatment they need, and the government would get better data.

The hospital industry believes the Legislature should focus on the more than 1 million Arizonans who don't have health coverage.  They say it would cost a lot to train their people and they don't want to be generating government reports.
“Wouldn't you think the more reliable statistics are when people are using day to day services and not the off-chance or periodic chance they enter a hospital?” asked Pete Wertheim of Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.  “How about a grocery store?  Everybody goes to a grocery store periodically.  That's a more reliable place you could get that kind of information.”

Smith thinks the industry's explanation doesn't wash, but he has struggled to get similar bills passed the last two years.