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Sunday, July 25, 2004

AP Wire | 07/25/2004 | AG rules on preventive health care for illegal immigrants

AP Wire | 07/25/2004 | AG rules on preventive health care for illegal immigrants
Posted on Sun, Jul. 25, 2004





AG rules on preventive health care for illegal immigrants

JUAN A. LOZANO

Associated Press


HOUSTON - While hospital districts in Texas can provide nonemergency health care to illegal immigrants, they are not required to do so, state Attorney General Greg Abbott has said in a legal opinion.

In February, the Montgomery County Hospital District's board members argued over whether they were forced to provide such health care under a new state law. They put a decision on hold and asked Abbott for an opinion.

But the legal debate of the issue in Texas goes back to 2001, when then-Attorney General John Cornyn ruled that a federal welfare overhaul five years earlier prohibited states from offering nonemergency, preventive health care to illegal immigrants unless a specific law allowed it. Texas had no such law then.

Federal law requires all hospitals, public or private, to treat emergency room patients.

Cornyn issued his ruling after the Harris County Hospital District in Houston asked him for guidance. Harris County and others around the state continued providing such health care while Montgomery County, located north of Houston, and some others stopped.

State lawmakers last year passed House Bill 2292, which made such health care legal under the 1996 welfare overhaul.

When the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office in January ruled the new legislation required its county's hospital district to provide such free or discounted care to illegal immigrants, that created more confusion on the issue. The hospital district had not provided such health care since 1997.

In his opinion, issued late Friday, Abbott wrote that under the new state law, an illegal immigrant "is eligible to receive public health benefits. But an undocumented person is not entitled to receive those benefits from state funds...And he or she may be entitled to receive such benefits from local funds only if a particular hospital district permits the use of its funds for that person."

William Leigh, a board member of the Montgomery County Hospital District, said he doesn't think the board will decide to offer such health care for either the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, or during the next one, which begins Oct. 1.

The board will spend August creating the next fiscal year's budget and at that point make its final decision on whether it will offer such benefits to illegal immigrants.

"Frankly I hope we don't because I don't believe the service is necessary and I don't think the economy and taxpayers of Montgomery County can afford it," Leigh said. "I just don't think it's fiscally responsible."

Hospital district officials have said if such health care was mandatory, it would cost the county nearly $2 million the first year and more than $20 million by 2008.

Leigh said that illegal immigrants will be able to receive preventive health care at several area clinics, including one that has been designated by the federal government to take care of such individuals.

But local immigrant rights and health care activists disagree with the hospital district, saying it makes economic sense to have individuals treated early, before they need to go to an emergency room, which can be three to 10 times more expensive.


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