Immigrants to the U.S. contributed $115.2 billion more to the Medicare Trust Fund during the past decade than they withdrew, according to a study by Harvard University researchers.
The data, published today in the journal Health Affairs, suggest immigrants, mainly those without U.S. citizenship, heavily subsidize the nation’s health program for the elderly.
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 cast doubt on the belief that immigrants are a burden for the U.S. healthcare 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.
"Immigrants generate a surplus for Medicare primarily because so many of them are working-age adults," said the researchers led by Leah Zallman, from Harvard Medical School in Boston and the Cambridge Health Alliance. "That group has a high labor-force participation rate — a combination that generates large payroll tax payments."
Lawmakers in Congress are intent this year on achieving the first major revision of immigration law in a generation, seeking a balance between the Democrats' proposed path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants with enough border- security improvements to satisfy Republicans. Congress’s last effort to pass comprehensive immigration legislation stalled in 2007.
One frequent hurdle for proposed legislation is the concern that immigrants drive up healthcare costs, the researchers said. The study's findings provide a novel way of looking at the topic, they said. Many immigrants come to the U.S. to work and few are elderly beneficiaries of Medicare.
"Most of the surplus from immigrants was contributed by noncitizens and was a result of the high proportion of working-age taxpayers in this group," the researchers said. "Policies that restrict immigration may deplete Medicare's financial resources."
One-third of all immigrants didn't have health insurance in 2010, with even higher rates among non-citizen immigrants, said Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, a consumer watchdog organization.
"These are the same people contributing a surplus of well over $10 billion a year to Medicare for medical care," he said in a statement. "For them not to be insured is a disgrace."
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