Lawsuit Seeks To Require Los Angeles County To Bill Immigrant Sponsors for Some Medical Services
A group of attorneys, researchers, law enforcement officers and legislators have filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County "in an effort to force health officials to seek reimbursement from the sponsors" of documented immigrants for certain publicly funded medical services, such as nonemergency care, the Los Angeles Times reports. A federal law enacted in 1996 requires sponsors of documented immigrants to submit an "affidavit of support" promising to pay for these medical services. Under the law, a sponsor is obligated to pay an immigrant's health care bills until the immigrant has received legal citizenship or worked in the United States for a period of usually no more than 10 years.
Los Angeles County, "along with most other local governments throughout the state, have never sought to bill the sponsor of an immigrant," the Times reports. According to lawyers from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, such a task is not required by law and would be costly and difficult to perform, the Times reports.
The lawsuit was filed in the name of state residents Terry Anderson and Hal Netkin by Washington, D.C.-based Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement, which works to ensure that immigration laws are upheld. The plaintiffs include about 1,000 state residents who signed up to join the lawsuit on the association's Web site. A hearing in the suit is scheduled for next week.
The suit's plaintiffs say that taxpayers have to pay for medical care for documented immigrants through free health clinics and other state-sponsored programs because the county does not bill documented immigrants' sponsors. According to the Times, critics say the county's failure to bill immigrants' sponsors has "contributed to the already cash-strapped health system's need to close down many clinics that serve the poor." The plaintiffs said that the suit, if successful, could "have a ripple effect" and result in other states and hospitals across the country collecting money from documented immigrants' sponsors, the Times reports.
Craig Nelson, executive director of the association behind the suit, said that the county is reluctant to bill sponsors because the practice would require health officials to question patients' immigration status, which could lead to a large exposure of undocumented immigrants.
James Bame, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said, "The law is outlined, but the county has been able to ignore it. Given the current California budget crisis, it is important for looking at areas where (financial) waste is established."
Nelson said, "From a social and political standpoint, you have to say whether it is responsible for a democracy not to look at the long-term consequences of flouting the law." He added, "Whatever the law is, it has to be respected by either Americans or foreigners."
Sharon Reichman, the county's lead attorney for the case, said, "It's not as simple as simply sending out a bill. This is a very complex area, just deciding which services are actually billable, let alone who is responsible." Reichman added that the closure of county health clinics was because of financial structural problems in the health care system and "has nothing to do with its lack of reimbursement efforts." According to Reichman, "The crux of the matter is the cost-benefit analysis: What is it going to cost to go through these efforts, versus what is going to be gained?"
Gabrielle Lessard, an attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, which promotes the rights of low-income immigrants, said, "Only a subset of immigrants are going to have sponsors, and only a few will have sponsorship liability." Lessard added, "States have just not implemented sponsor liability into their health care programs because it is administratively burdensome, they are unlikely to get any kid of reimbursement, it's not cost effective" (Simmons, Los Angeles Times, 8/17).