Immigrants Less Likely to Use Emergency Rooms

False rumors that U.S. hospitals are closing because of undocumented immigrants have spread throughout the nativist internet network. The rumors started in 2005, when the discredited “medical expert” Madeleine Cosman published an article in a right-wing medical journal claiming that “84 California hospitals [were] closing their doors” because undocumented immigrants were straining the hospitals’ emergency facilities.1  The citation for Cosman’s claim, though, does not support her contention. The LA Times article cited reported that:
Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne announced Thursday that it will shut down Dec. 31, becoming the sixth Los Angeles County emergency room [in 2004] to close its doors because of financial problems.2
Nowhere in the article does the LA Times attribute the closing to costs of care for undocumented immigrants. What the Times does say is:
Emergency rooms are generally a greater drain on hospital finances than other departments because more of their patients don't have insurance.3
Cosman’s false claim relies on the assumption that most uninsured emergency room patients are immigrants. However, a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found:
Medi-Cal patients are more likely than uninsured or privately insured Californians to visit hospital emergency departments for conditions that could be treated in a clinic or doctor’s office . . . [I]immigrants are not crowding the state’s emergency rooms – in fact, foreign-born Californians who are not U.S. citizens are among the least likely to seek treatment in the ER.4
Addressing undocumented immigrants specifically, PPIC states:
[O]ur finding that noncitizens (some of whom are presumably undocumented) are less likely to visit an emergency department is consistent with other research showing that the foreign-born, and especially undocumented immigrants, use less medical care and contribute less to health care spending relative to their share of the population.5
The report also includes a chart that breaks down the propensity of certain groups to rely on emergency medical treatment.

1. Madeleine Cosman. “Illegal Aliens and American Medicine.” Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Spring 2005. Many of Cosman's claims, including her allegation that undocumented immigrants were bringing leprosy to the U.S., were widely debunked by several news outlets in 2007.
2. Jia-Rui Chong. "Hawthorne Hospital to shut doors." Los Angeles Times, 24 Sept 2004.
3. Id.
4. "Medi-Cal Patients Are Heaviest Users of Emergency Departments — Majority of Visits May Be Avoidable." Public Policy Institute of California. Press Release, 19 Aug 2008, (emphasis added).
5. Shannon McConville and Helen Lee. "Emergency Department Care in California: Who Uses It and Why?" Public Policy Institute of California, Aug 2008, (emphasis added).

Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund