WASHINGTON Less than 1 percent of Medicaid spending went to health care for illegal immigrants, according to a study that the researchers said defied a common belief that they are a bigger drain on taxpayer money.
The study, published on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, used North Carolina as an example to better understand how public funds are being used to treat illegal immigrants.
"This challenges a fairly common public perception that somehow immigrants are placing a very large burden on the Medicaid budget," lead researcher Dr. Annette DuBard of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told reporters.
The study appeared in an issue of the journal devoted to access to medical care in the United States. Concern has been growing over rising U.S. health care costs and the number of people lacking health insurance, as well as controversy over illegal immigration.
"It is not that we are spending so much through Medicaid on health care for immigrants. It's that we are spending it at the wrong end of care," DuBard added.
The researchers said increased access to preventive care, prenatal care, contraceptives and chronic disease management programs may represent better use of public money by improving the health of these immigrants and lessening the demand for costly emergency care.
Medicaid is the federal-state health care program for the poor. The study examined emergency spending in North Carolina from 2001 to 2004 under Medicaid for recent immigrants, about 99 percent of whom were listed as illegally in the country.
States experiencing an influx of illegal immigrants like North Carolina have rising Medicaid costs. But the study found that these emergency costs accounted for about 0.7 percent of North Carolina's Medicaid budget.
More than 48,000 people got care costing more than $185 million under Medicaid during these years, 93 percent of whom were Hispanic and 95 percent of whom were women.
The study found that 83 percent of this emergency Medicaid spending and 91 percent of the hospitalizations were related to childbirth and pregnancy-related complications.
The remaining costs covered emergency conditions like appendicitis and injuries and serious complications of chronic illnesses like kidney and heart disease.
Illegal immigrants, as well as legal immigrants in the country less than five years, generally are not eligible for Medicaid.
But they can get Medicaid coverage for health emergencies if they are in a category of people otherwise eligible, such as children, pregnant women, families with dependent children, elderly or disabled individuals, and meet other requirements.