WASHINGTON, March 27 (UPI) -- The Senate majority leader said Monday that his immigration-reform bill could help ease financial stress on hospitals that treat undocumented immigrants.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is one of at least eight lawmakers with proposals on the table as the Senate enters up to two weeks of debate on legislation designed to tighten control of U.S. borders and crack down on illegal immigration.
Frist took time out of a briefing with reporters Monday to promote part of his proposal as a benefit for hospitals near the U.S border with Mexico. Under the proposal, law enforcement would be allowed to expedite deportation of illegal aliens who are apprehended within 100 miles of the border or two weeks of entry into the country.
The provision doesn't mention hospitals, but Frist said the crackdown would help border hospitals that often wind up providing emergency medical care to undocumented persons with no ability to pay for it.
"The people who are slipping through just put an undue stress on the hospitals," Frist said. "The longer they're in this country illegally, the greater burden it places on our hospitals," he added.
Hospitals are required by law to treat all who need emergency care, regardless of legal status or ability to pay. Facilities have long complained of the cost of caring for undocumented immigrants, although the extent of the strain today is unclear.
Congress last year freed up $1 billion over four years to reimburse hospitals for the cost of treating undocumented aliens.
A spokesperson for the American Hospital Association said that the proposal touted by Frist was "not on our radar."
It also remained unclear Monday which parts of the multiple proposals would eventually reach the Senate floor. Frist's bill contains provisions generally agreed to by a majority of senators, meaning that they could be married to any other bill surviving for full debate.
But the success of any bill is still very much in doubt. Democrats -- and a few Republicans -- are vowing to oppose any bill that does not contain a program for legitimizing up to 8 million undocumented persons in a guest-worker program.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to work deep into Monday night on approving a version of immigration reform.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., complained Monday that Frist's drive to begin an immigration debate this week was sending the Senate "a forced march" before a consensus could be reached. That could have implications for any reform package, including the one Frist said will help hospitals.
"I'm going to vote against a motion to proceed on majority leader Frist's bill," Feinstein warned.