A press release from Dr. Carol Paris of the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) reported the following article from yesterday’s Health Affairs journal.
Two of the authors of the study, Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein are regular contributors to many articles appearing in Health Affairs, and you may remember them from my review of the book they published along with Howard Waitzkin and others, Health Care Under the Knife: Moving Beyond Capitalism for Our Health.
Here is the press release in full:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Despite recent claims that immigrants are a drain on the American economy and health system, a study published yesterday in Health Affairs shows that immigrants make a net contribution to private health insurance plans. The research team, which included several PNHP members, found that as a group, immigrants paid $88.7 billion in private insurance premiums but used only $64.0 billion in insurer-paid health care, generating a surplus of $24.7 billion in 2014.
In “Immigrants Pay More in Private Insurance Premiums Than They Receive in Benefits,” researchers Leah Zallman, M.D., M.P.H., Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., M.P.H., Sharon Touw, M.P.H., David Himmelstein, M.D., and Karen Finnegan, Ph.D. found that between 2008 and 2014, immigrants generated a cumulative surplus of $174.4 billion for private insurers, heavily subsidizing the the benefits of U.S.-born enrollees and boosting the profits of insurance companies. On a per-enrollee basis, immigrants provided an average premium-over-payout surplus of $1,123 each, while U.S.-born Americans incurred an average deficit of $163 each. Undocumented immigrants, who generally use little medical care, generated the largest surplus at $1,445 per enrollee.
While recent studies have examined the financial impact of immigrants on public health programs like Medicare, this project was the first to look specifically at immigrants’ role in financing private health insurance. Since undocumented immigrants or those residing legally in the U.S. for fewer than five years are not eligible for Medicaid and Medicare, private insurance is often immigrants’ only coverage option. Even so, many immigrants are afraid to use the coverage that they earn and pay for.
“Almost every day I see immigrant patients who avoid seeking the care they need to stay healthy,” said lead author Dr. Leah Zallman, who is director of research at the Institute for Community Health, physician at Cambridge Health Alliance, and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Political leaders have created a climate of fear by blaming immigrants for driving up health care costs. However, this study and our prior research shows that by paying more into the system than they receive, immigrants actually subsidize both private insurance and Medicare for U.S.-born citizens.”
Don McCanne added the following on his post this afternoon about immigrants and private health insurance premiums.
From the Discussion
Immigrants contributed far more in premiums for private coverage in 2014 than their insurers paid out for their care, with undocumented immigrants generating the largest per enrollee surplus. This net surplus offset a deficit incurred by US natives and exceeded total insurance industry profits by about $10 billion that year. Our 2014 findings were not anomalous: Immigrants made large net contributions in every year in the period 2008–14, with little change over time.
While immigrants’ premiums were similar to those for US natives, immigrants incurred much lower expenditures—a disparity that was present in analyses limited to working-age adults. Among immigrants, expenditures increased with duration of time in the US, a phenomenon documented previously. This may reflect worsening health habits related to acculturation, increased care-seeking behaviors, and increased educational standing with time in the US. However, because premium contributions also increased with time in the US, immigrants made a net contribution to private health insurance regardless of their length of residence in the US.
Our findings contradict assertions that people born in the US are systematically subsidizing the medical care of immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented. On the contrary, immigrants subsidize US natives in the private health insurance market, just as they are propping up the Medicare Trust Funds.
Immigrants’ subsidies to private insurance and Medicare likely reflect their relative youth and good health, as well as the reluctance of many to seek care. Policies that curtail the flow of immigration to the US are likely to result in a declining number of such “actuarially desirable” persons, which could worsen the private insurance risk pool.