A group of Democratic lawmakers is breaking ranks by seeking coverage for immigrants under a new US health plan, saying their exclusion was short-sighted and would raise costs in the long run.
Led by Representative Mike Honda, who heads the Asian American caucus, the liberal Democrats oppose plans to prohibit illegal immigrants from buying insurance in any revamped national health care plan.
"It is not rational to exclude individuals who are willing and able to share in the responsibility of paying into the system," said the letter signed by 22 members of Congress recently sent to their leadership.
They said that immigrants tended to be younger and healthier and to spend less on health care than native-born Americans.
The exclusion of illegal immigrants from the system would shift the burden to taxpayers if they need emergency room care, the lawmakers said.
"With skyrocketing health care costs, legislators should do all that we can to contain costs for working American families," they said.
In a similar letter signed by 31 lawmakers, they urged an end to an existing five-year waiting period before legal immigrants can be eligible for Medicaid, the government health plan for people with low incomes.
The appeals come as debate intensifies on revamping the health care system, the top legislative priority for President Barack Obama. More than 46 million Americans lack health insurance, according to the Census Bureau.
The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday voted against a proposal, crucial for many liberal Democrats, to include a government-managed insurance plan in legislation.
Senator Max Baucus, who heads the committee, has previously promised not to include illegal immigrants in a health plan.
The issue is important for many Republicans. Representative Joe Wilson was reprimanded after shouting, "You Lie!" at Obama when the president told a joint session of Congress that no illegal immigrants would be covered.