Harvard Researchers Find Immigrants Pay More Into Medicare Than They Get

Immigrants help keep Medicare afloat, pouring far more into the system than they get in return, according to a new study.

These immigrants, who include those here illegally as well as legally, contribute roughly $14 billion more each year to Medicare – the federal health care program for the elderly – than they avail themselves of, said authors of the report, which was published Wednesday in the journal Health Affairs and whose lead author is Dr. Leah Zallman, an internist and Harvard Medical School instructor.

Hispanics have a median age of 27, far younger than the median of 42 for non-Latino whites.

“Our study should raise skepticism about the widespread assumption that immigrants drain public health care resources,” said Zallman, in a story published in the Los Angeles Times.

The study was released as Congress is looking at whether, and how, immigrants should be handled in efforts to reform the immigration system.

The study said that immigrants generated surpluses totaling $115 billion from 2002 to 2009. U.S.-born population contributions, by contrast, saw a deficit of $28 billion over the same period.

The report gave a boost to arguments by immigration advocates that maintain that as the U.S. population ages, young, working-age immigrants are filling crucial voids in the labor market and in programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

But, as The New York Times notes, it is not clear "how much of the surplus is made up of earnings by immigrants in the country illegally, who are ineligible for most government programs."

Critics of plans to legalize undocumented immigrants say they drain services and do not contribute. They also warn that if Congress passes a reform plan that would offer the undocumented legal status, that may bring a whole new layer of expenses to health care and other costs.

“There’s this strong belief that immigrants are takers,” said Leighton Ku, the director of the Center for Health Policy Research at George Washington University, to The New York Times. “This shows they are contributing hugely. Without immigrants, the Medicare trust fund would be in trouble sooner.”

The Times said that the study did not look at the use of health care programs by immigrants over time.

“It’s just a snapshot of a point in time,” said Paul Van de Water, a visiting fellow at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, according to the paper.

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