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PolitiFact Florida: Fact-checking Joe Gruters on health care for undocumented immigrants

The chair of the Republican Party of Florida made the claim at a Tampa Bay Times event.
Republican Party of Florida chairman Joe Gruters, speaks during the Tampa Bay Times Florida 2020 a candid conversation forum Wednesday in St. Petersburg. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Nov. 8

The leaders of Florida’s two major political parties squared off less than a year before Election Day, throwing partisan jabs over health care and immigration.

Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo called out Republican efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act established under former President Barack Obama. Republican Party of Florida chairman Joe Gruters said it is Democrats with a health care problem.

Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, referenced the first presidential primary debate in June, in which moderators asked the crowded field to raise their hands if they supported certain positions.

RELATED: Florida’s top Republican, top Democrat agree on one thing: 2020 hinges on the Sunshine State

"All the Democrats on the entire stage — every Democratic candidate said they want to give free health care to illegals," Gruters said during a Tampa Bay Times forum Nov. 6. "That’s them saying, that’s what they said in the debate. It wasn’t me saying it. They raised their hands — every single one of them — free health care for illegals."

In the middle of his reply, Rizzo said: "Fact-check it!"

It wasn’t the first time PolitiFact heard this claim. President Donald Trump used a similar attack in a July ad for his re-election campaign, and it rates Mostly False. Gruters’ statement is not more accurate, and here’s why.

What happened with the Democrats in June

At the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami in June, NBC debate moderator and Today show cohost Savannah Guthrie asked a group of candidates to “raise your hand if your government plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.”

All candidates on stage raised their hands. They weren’t all the candidates, because the first presidential debate was split into two nights.

On the stage were author Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California. (Hickenlooper, Gillibrand and Swalwell have dropped out.)

The candidates were not asked if that coverage would be free. Guthrie then asked two candidates — Buttigieg and Biden — to comment. Neither one said they would give "free" health care to undocumented immigrants.

Buttigieg spoke about people buying into a system and said that undocumented immigrants pay certain taxes.

"This is not about a handout," Buttigieg said. "This is an insurance program."

Biden agreed, and spoke about the contributions by undocumented immigrants, including paying taxes.

So the debate Gruters mentioned doesn’t actually support what Gruters claimed. But there is some question about how Medicare for All, a proposal some of the Democratic candidates support, would treat health care costs for undocumented immigrants.

Sanders’ version is a single, national health insurance program that would cover everyone who lives in the United States. There would be no out-of-pocket costs to individuals — no deductibles, no copays or coinsurance — but anyone with a job or self-employed would pay into the system through taxes. In that sense, coverage would not be free for anyone who works. (Some immigrants in the country illegally pay income taxes.)

Sanders’ 2019 Medicare for All bill states that all residents — without specifying legal residents — are entitled to the benefits and that the health and human services secretary shall set criteria to determine residency.

Sanders’ immigration plan says Medicare for All will "provide comprehensive care to everyone in America, regardless of immigration status." It also calls for employers to follow labor laws when employing undocumented immigrants, which suggests that they would pay the payroll tax.

However, some of the other Democrats on the debate stage specifically responded to a New York Times questionnaire with replies that showed the coverage would not be free.

Buttigieg, Bennet and Yang said undocumented immigrants would have the option to buy coverage through a public option, the insurance marketplace, or Medicare for All, respectively.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the top contenders and another advocate for Medicare for All, was not on the debate stage that night. (She went the night before.)

Her detailed financial plan for Medicare for All includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which would increase federal revenue for Medicare for All as new people come into the system and pay taxes.

When PolitiFact told Gruters what we found — mainly that the debate question did not include the condition that it would be free coverage — he replied: “Illegal immigrants have little more than what they are carrying with them when they cross the border, so as a result the only logical conclusion is that it would be free.”

Our ruling

Gruters said, "All the Democrats on the entire stage — every Democratic candidate said they want to give free health care to illegals."

The question from the debate moderator did not specify if coverage for undocumented immigrants would be free. Two candidates who elaborated on their responses — Biden and Buttigieg — said these immigrants would be eligible to buy into their system.

We rate this statement Mostly False.

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