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'You lie'

Published September 15, 2009 5:55 pm

Health care and illegal immigrants
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

They were the words heard 'round the world. "You lie!"

That was Rep. Joe Wilson's retort to President Obama's statement last week that his health care reforms would not insure illegal immigrants. The president had said, in his address to Congress, "There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally."

That's when the gentleman from South Carolina shouted that the president was lying. He later apologized. The House voted to admonish Wilson Tuesday.

But many Americans have been left wondering who's telling the truth.

Our reading of HR3200, the leading health care reform bill in the House, leads us to conclude that the president is telling the truth. But like many issues in the health care debate, this is not a simple, black-and-white question, because the language in the bill is complicated.

HR3200 would require that every American obtain health insurance, either through an employer or through government programs (Medicare, Medicaid, the VA) or by buying it through a new health insurance exchange. That same requirement applies to illegal immigrants.

The bill would provide tax credits for families with incomes less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level who could not otherwise afford insurance. However, Section 246 is titled "No federal payment for undocumented aliens." It says, "Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States."

That's pretty straightforward. No subsidies for illegal immigrants. But critics of the bill point out, correctly, that it does not contain a mechanism to verify immigration status. Without that, they say, the prohibition against subsidizing illegal immigrants would not be enforced. That, apparently, is Wilson's beef. Defenders of the bill reply that the Health Choices Commissioner created by the bill is empowered to determine eligibility.

We don't doubt that some illegal immigrants might obtain health insurance credits illegally. Without immigration reform, it will be hard to verify who is in the country illegally, regardless of who is doing the verifying. Still, it makes sense to require everyone, including illegal immigrants, to obtain health insurance. That should prevent costs being shifted from those without insurance, like illegal immigrants, to those who have it. That's what happens now.