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U.S. Immigrants' Health Costs Far Below Native-Born

Study refutes notion that newcomers take advantage of system

WEDNESDAY, July 27, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Countering the belief that immigrants to the United States use more than their share of health-care resources, a new study finds that just the opposite is true.

According to research released this week, data suggest that the average immigrant consumes several hundred dollars less a year in health costs, on average, than the typical native-born citizen. Most strikingly, the researchers say health-care costs for the poorest immigrant children are 84 percent below those of native-born kids.

On that front, "we found a really grave disparity," said study co-author Dr. Sarita Mohanty, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

According to Mohanty, the research team launched the study to combat the belief that immigrants take advantage of the American health-care system. "We thought there were a lot of popular misconceptions," she said.

The researchers looked at the results of a 1998 federal survey of more than 21,000 people, including more than 2,800 immigrants. The findings appear in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Mohanty's team found that immigrants accounted for an average of $1,582 in health costs per year, compared to $2,005 for the native-born. When the researchers adjusted their figures to take into account possible differences between the two groups due to factors such as age and health status, that gap widened to $1,139 for immigrants and $2,546 for the U.S.-born. Furthermore, a full 30 percent of immigrants used no health care at all in the course of the average year.

Latinos had the lowest expenditures among the immigrants; non-Latino whites had the highest.

The surveys didn't ask questions about immigration status, however, and Mohanty said it's possible they may have missed some undocumented immigrants who were too afraid to answer questions.

Researchers also found that immigrant children were less likely than other kids to visit doctor's offices or take prescription medicines. On the other hand, the children of immigrants ended up consuming more in terms of higher emergency room costs, compared to the children of native-born Americans.

Immigrant families often turn to emergency care because many "aren't aware of what's available in terms of preventive services, or they don't have access to them because of [lack of] insurance or income," Mohanty said. "There also may be fears about being undocumented."

The study findings seem reasonable, said Dr. Mita Sanghavi Goel, an instructor in medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago who studies immigrant health. However, "there is much more research that needs to be done to understand in more detail where the higher costs for U.S.-born people and lower costs for foreign-born people come from," she said.

According to Goel, there also needs to be a greater understanding of the proper role of disease prevention. "Are we spending money wisely in the care of individuals, whether foreign-born or U.S.-born? Should we providing better preventive and early health care, rather than emergency-room based care?" she asked. "We need to look at this data with a finer-toothed comb before the debate is settled."

More information

Learn more about immigrant health care options at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: Sarita Mohanty, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor, medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Mita Sanghavi Goel, M.D., instructor, medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago; August 2005 American Journal of Public Health
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