On a scale of 1 to 10, the political rhetoric regarding U.S. border policy has landed somewhere around “11” in recent weeks, as the number of illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border continues to climb and U.S. Border Patrol encounters reach record highs.  But amid all the speech-making and fist-banging, communities across the United States face the more practical challenge of how to ensure access to adequate shelter, food and medical care for all people, regardless of their immigration status — whether they’re near the Southern border or in the middle of the Free State. In Annapolis, state lawmakers are grappling with legislation that exemplifies this challenge, which is not just about compassion, but also common sense.

Under Senate Bill 705, which is set for a key hearing Wednesday at 1 p.m. before the Senate Finance Committee, undocumented individuals living in Maryland would be given the opportunity to purchase health insurance under the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, an affordable insurance marketplace for individuals and small businesses who need the option. An identical House bill (HB 728) was approved Friday along a party line vote by the House Health and Government Operations Committee.  A report submitted to the legislature in December estimates that there are 112,400 “undocumented and uninsured” people living in Maryland, making up roughly a third of the state’s uninsured population.

To suggest this legislation is a controversial measure is surely an understatement. Bills with similar provisions have failed to pass the state legislature before, with a 2023 version making it out of the House of Delegates before getting stuck in the Senate Finance Committee.

Critics of the legislation generally see it as a taxpayer handout to undocumented individuals and thus part of the reason why so many are seeking entry into this country. That’s a compelling narrative but also a maddeningly incomplete one. It ignores the reality of what happens when people living in this country suffer health problems but lack the resources to afford medical care. What might have been small, treatable illnesses fester and worsen. Wounds become infected, cancers spread, and what might have been prevented with a single injection or minor procedure now requires an emergency room visit and hospital stay.

Marylanders should be familiar with this circumstance; it’s a major reason why this state in 2011 adopted a benefits exchange in the first place to provide access to affordable health care coverage to individuals and small businesses who need it. When more people are covered by health insurance, everyone inevitably benefits. Diseases are caught in time to limit the spread and patients are treated before they are forced to crowd emergency rooms, where care is far more expensive. When ERs are over full, everyone suffers, and not just those waiting in line. Uncompensated care is a major factor in the higher health insurance premiums that everyone in Maryland faces.

The Maryland General Assembly isn’t in charge of U.S. border policy. But its members do have the obligation of formulating a practical response to this state’s health care needs and providing an opportunity for tens of thousands of men, women and children already living here to have access to adequate health care by being able to buy it at a reasonable price. Not only because it’s the morally right and humane thing to do, but because it’s in the best interests of all of us.

Meanwhile, we would ask those politicians in the State House to first spend a few minutes pondering the experience of physicians like Dr. Ligia Peralta, the Dominican Republic-born pediatrician who has seen first-hand how a young Latino child with an untreated stuffy nose eventually came to suffer an abscess and bone infection. Such inequities in health care worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and for this Marylanders have paid too high a price. No human being deserves to be treated as uninsurable.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

 

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