Video: The cost of medical care

By Don Teague Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/3/2006 7:35:00 PM ET 2006-08-03T23:35:00

Parkland Memorial Hospital — the same iconic institution where doctors tried to save John F. Kennedy in 1963 — is today where tens of thousands of illegal immigrants receive taxpayer subsidized care.

“Whether they come from this country or somewhere else, doesn’t matter how I treat them,” says Richard Benson, a doctor at Parkland Hospital.

The most common patients here are expectant mothers. Each year about 16,000 babies are born at Parkland. The hospital estimates about 70 percent of them are delivered by undocumented mothers.

Among the new mothers is a woman who didn't want to be identified — an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Her medical bills will run more than $6,000.

But with no insurance, Parkland — a public hospital — is forced to cover the cost.

“We have to figure out how to continue to deal with this because it’s very difficult to fund it,” says Parkland President Dr. Ron Anderson.

Anderson says the cost of treating undocumented immigrants — millions of dollars each year — is unsustainable.

Still, he says, his hospital will never turn away patients.

“You are going to make some awful mistakes when you decide that one person is worthy and one person isn’t worthy,” Anderson says.

But 30 miles away, a Fort Worth public hospital is making those decisions, requiring patients to prove they're here legally before picking up the tab for non-emergency treatment.

“In some cases, you can’t afford 100 percent subsidized care to everyone that walks in here,” Robert Earley with John Peter Smith Hospital says.

The decision has drawn fire from Hispanic rights groups and people like Dominga Valderama, with her newborn baby at Parkland. She's a U.S. citizen, but has undocumented relatives.

"Can you put a price on someone’s health, put a price on a baby’s life?” says Valderama. “Everyone’s entitled to basic rights.”

But who should pay?

That’s a question one of the nation's top public hospitals is struggling to answer.

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