Aug 9, 2018, 8:52 PM ET

Immigrants cost the health care system less than US-born Americans: Study


Slightly over half of Americans — 52 percent — believe that immigrants are a financial burden on the U.S. healthcare system, and two thirds believe that undocumented immigrants should not be eligible for social services provided by state and local governments.

A study published Thursday in the International Journal of Health Services finds that immigrants actually use far less healthcare resources than non-immigrants, and may actually subsidize the health care of U.S. citizens.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University assessed all peer-reviewed studies since 2000 related to healthcare costs by immigrants in the United States. The authors found that across all age groups, immigrants’ overall healthcare costs were one-half to two-thirds those of people born in the U.S.

Health expenditures were particularly low for undocumented immigrants. The report also found that immigrants make up 12% of the population, but only account for 8.6% of total U.S. healthcare spending.

Why are immigrants using less healthcare resources?

There are several possible explanations. The authors suggest that part of the disparity in healthcare spending may be due to a “healthy immigrant effect,” meaning that recent immigrants tend to be young and robust when they arrive. “There is also higher family and social support among immigrants, which may foster improved health and less overall healthcare expenditures,” according to Dr. Julie Linton, Co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Immigrant Health Special Interest Group, in an interview with ABC News.

PHOTO: A doctor using a tablet to look at a chest x-ray. STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
A doctor using a tablet to look at a chest x-ray.

Researchers concluded that as a group, immigrants constitute a low-risk insurance pool and effectively subsidize private insurance and some public insurance programs like Medicare.

“Recent immigrants are substantially healthier than native-born Americans, which benefits the American health care economy,” said study author Lila Flavin, a medical student at Tufts University School of Medicine. “But to maintain their health over the long term, new immigrants, -- and all Americans – need access to good healthcare.”

What does this mean for the larger American public?

“I think some people will be moved by the data,” said Dr. J. Wesley Boyd, psychiatrist and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics, in an interview with ABC News. “But even more important, we need to get stories out about individual immigrants, who are hardworking, contributing to the system. These kinds of stories move people more than data. Having data about immigration is one arm of a multi-pronged effort to set the record straight.”

Despite these lower healthcare expenditures, experts caution about the potential for adverse health outcomes among immigrant children and families in the wake of the current immigration debate. There is concern that stress imposed by immigration policies will increase healthcare expenditures by way of its negative health impact on immigrant children and families.

“As a doctor, the healthy families I take care of are not costing the health care system more, but are instead being threatened by current government policies that are making them less healthy,” Linton said. “This a really important study that speaks to the science and evidence to understand why it’s so important to offer access to health care to all children and families. We need an administration that responds to science as well as our shared values of treating everyone with dignity, compassion, and respect.”

PHOTO: A plaque marks the U.S. border on the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry bridge which connects the U.S. and Mexico on July 23, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A plaque marks the U.S. border on the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry bridge which connects the U.S. and Mexico on July 23, 2018 in El Paso, Texas.

The review comes as the Trump administration is considering new rules that would make it harder for legal immigrants to become permanent residents and citizens if they have used a range of public welfare programs.

Dr. Ryan Guinness is an internal and preventive medicine resident physician at the University of California, San Francisco, currently working in the ABC News Medical Unit.

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  • TheGoyWonder ✓ᵀʰᵒᵗ ᴾᵃᵗʳᵒᶫ

    BS. They go straight to the emergency room, and then they comped bc they can't pay the outrageous bill that citizens would receive. They also CLOG UP free clinics which should go to our OWN poor people. They are undocumented, and their healthcare is under-documented as well. Versus citizens who go to their primary, then get a referral, then go to surgery or pharmacy, and pay with insurance and debit cards, all leaving a huge papertrail.

  • me

    Ramon Pedro. Who is paying for the little girl he was raping in Philadelphia after he got catch-n-release status?

  • me

    Most Americans cannot afford health insurance. If they have it, they cannot afford to use it. Article is purposely vague. I would love to see your statistics and your definition of immigrant. Are they non citizens that have applied to legally be here? Are they illegal aliens that refused to follow any law and cross illegally? Where are the statistics on hospitals that are in the red do to illegals not paying their bill and disappearing into the shadows?

  • John Murray

    Here's the bottom line - illegal aliens ARE a burden on the US healthcare system because every single minute they use of a doctor's time, every pill they take, every bandage they get is one that if they were not here illegally would not have been "spent". It's like crimes. 100% of crimes committed by illegal aliens are crimes that if they were not here would not have been committed.
    The problem is that the pro-illegal crowd keeps trying to conflate LEGAL immigrants with ILLEGAL aliens and lump them all together. They keep trying to mitigate and understate the simple fact that 100% of things illegal aliens use are things that otherwise would not have been used if they were not here.

  • Gypsy613

    Citizenship and legal residence should have benefits. Illegal entry should have penalties, punishment, and removal.
    Very simple.

  • TJ Anderson

    Ya right.

  • Dr. Gurnicus Blanstonius

    Americans hire illegals. Hence, illegals come. Hiring illegals is...illegal.

    Then Americans complain that illegals come.

    Welcome to America.

  • thenitenurse

    The problem my hospital has is the illegal immigrant that has a chronic health problem like kidney failure. We usually have one to two ongoing patients who show up every 7-10 days for emergency dialysis. On the other hand we do have lots of citizen patients who refuse to get insurance but have lots of health problems.

  • Summer Day

    Immigration of any kind was not to be a strain on the US.

  • sakibaba

    Well as far as this administration is concerned all immigrants are bad( or in words of POTUS infestation). If you read the last line it pretty much spells it out that they are gunning for all immigrants even legal ones.

  • MolMas

    I find it a bit disingenuous to pretend that 12% of the population using 8.6% of all healthcare spending is insignificant, but the fact they use 50-66% of what American citizens use is interesting. Considering these are legal immigrants I think it is perfectly fine, and I realize it is hard to quantify illegal immigrants due to the fact they are illegal, but we should still regulate illegal immigration.