Fox News cherry-picked from reports by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General to single out undocumented immigrants for improperly benefitting from Medicare drug benefits, taking the opportunity to smear them as "illegal aliens." However, undocumented immigrants are partially responsible for keeping Medicare solvent.
On October 30, the OIG released reports showing that Medicare inappropriately paid out millions in benefits for dead patients and drug benefits for undocumented immigrants. But in highlighting the reports, Fox News reported only on the Medicare drug benefits data in an apparent attempt to demonize undocumented immigrants.
On the November 11 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade teased the segment by saying, "Many Americans can't even get prescriptions they need but illegal immigrants are getting them for free. Who's paying for that?" Co-host Steve Doocy followed with a short report noting that $29 million is "how much the federal government spent on prescription drugs for illegal aliens as part of the federal Medicare Part D program." He added: "Great."
But Fox News' reporting on the OIG reports ignored important facts -- the first being that undocumented immigrants are indeed paying some of the payroll taxes that sustain Medicare.
In fact, a Harvard study released in May found that undocumented immigrants are keeping the federal health care program partially solvent to the tune of $14 billion a year -- even as native-born Americans accounted for a $31 billion deficit to the program. As Bloomberg News reported:
Immigrants to the U.S. contributed $115.2 billion more to the Medicare Trust Fund during the past decade than they withdrew, casting doubt on criticism they overburden the health plan, Harvard University researchers said.
The data, published in the journal Health Affairs, suggest immigrants, mainly those without U.S. citizenship, help subsidize the nation's health program for the elderly and disabled. While American-born citizens took $30.9 billion out of Medicare in 2009 alone, immigrants provided a surplus of $13.8 billion that year. The study looked at data from 2002 to 2009.
The findings undermine the belief that immigrants are a drain on the U.S. health-care system, a key issue in the debate about immigration reform, the researchers said. In 2009, payments from immigrants and their employers accounted for 14.7 percent of payments to Medicare, while their expenses represented 7.9 percent of its costs, the study found.
In its audit of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the OIG found that from 2009 to 2011, CMS "inappropriately accepted 279,056 [Prescription Drug Event] records with unallowable gross drug costs totaling $29.0 million on behalf of 4,139 unlawfully present beneficiaries and used those records to make its final payment determinations to sponsors."
The report went on to note, however, that the reason these payments were made is because CMS does not have a policy in place to address payments for undocumented immigrants under Medicare Part D -- a Medicare insurance prescription drug plan designed to defray the costs of prescription medication for beneficiaries -- as it does for its other benefits programs:
Federal health care benefits are not allowable for services provided to unlawfully present beneficiaries. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has specifically implemented a policy that bars Federal payments for health care services provided to unlawfully present beneficiaries in Medicare Parts A and B.
CMS did not have a policy addressing payments for unlawfully present beneficiaries under Medicare Part D that was equivalent to the existing policy that covers payments for these beneficiaries under Parts A and B. Without such a policy, CMS incorrectly treated unlawfully present beneficiaries as eligible for Part D benefits and did not prevent Part D payments on behalf of them.
The report added: "Because CMS did not have such a policy, it did not have internal controls to identify and disenroll unlawfully present beneficiaries and to automatically reject PDE records associated with them."
According to the report, CMS accepted $227 billion in total drug costs during that period, which, in context, shows that the $29 million payout for undocumented immigrants totaled less than one tenth of a percent. The total Medicare outlays in 2011 totaled $541.3 billion, said the OIG.
As The Washington Times reported, the OIG audit uncovered that in 2011, Medicare paid $23 million for patients who had died and $25 million to dead doctors over a three-year period. The Times added however: "The payouts aren't large -- they amount to just a fraction of a percent of what Medicare pays each year in benefits."
Despite Fox's scapegoating of undocumented immigrants, several studies have proved that they are not "the driving force behind higher health care costs," in the words of health policy expert Jim Stimpson. In a 2010 study on health care spending on immigrants, Stimpson found that immigrants do not "make up a disproportionate share of the costs to public programs like Medicaid." He found "spending for noncitizens was on average about 50 percent less than spending for United States natives."
A follow-up study from Stimpson released in July replicated those findings:
It was found that U.S. natives spent $1 trillion on health care. By contrast all immigrants -- unauthorized, legal and illegal -- spent one-tenth that amount or $96.7 billion. Unauthorized immigrants accounted for $15.4 billion of that total, or 15.9 percent.
It also was found that an estimated 5.9 percent of unauthorized immigrants received care that providers are not reimbursed for, compared to 2.8 percent of U.S. natives in the same category. Dr. Stimpson speculated that this may be because unauthorized immigrants are much more likely to lack health insurance when compared to U.S. natives.