By Andrea Plaid
Even as the Drop The I-Word campaign and their partners celebrate the good news about the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post dropping the i-word, US hospitals are quietly dropping off undocumented immigrants who need life-saving long-term health care in the countries they emigrated from in order to keep down costs.
According to both NPR and Huffington Post, these healthcare facilities have sent about 600 people back under the system of “medical repatriation” in the last five years. Under this, the hospitals put the stabilized, and usually unconscious, patients on a chartered international flights–which the facilities are willing to pay for–back to their former home countries.
Hospitals are legally mandated to care for all patients who need emergency treatment, regardless of citizenship status or ability to pay. But once a patient is stabilized, that funding ceases, along with the requirement to provide care. Many immigrant workers without citizenship are ineligible for Medicaid, the government’s insurance program for the poor and elderly.
That’s why hospitals often try to send those patients to rehabilitation centers and nursing homes back in their home countries.
The hospitals have reportedly told the patients’ next of kin that the patients agreed to leave and tell the patients that their kin consented to send them away–in both statements, advocates have said, wasn’t true in several instances.
Patients are frequently told family members want them to come home. In cases where the patient is unconscious or can’t communicate, relatives are told their loved one wants to return, De Leon said.
Sometimes they’re told the situation is dire, and the patient may die, prompting many grief-stricken relatives to agree to a transfer, he said.
Some hospitals “emotionally extort family members in their home country,” De Leon said. “They make family members back home feel guilty so they can simply put them on a plane and drop them off at the airport.”
Medical repatriation is an extra-governmental program, meaning that that this falls outside of the government’s auspices, though the government seems to favor it.
“The problem is it’s all taking place in this unregulated sort of a black hole … and there is no tracking,” said law professor Lori Nessel, director of the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall Law School, which offers free legal representation to immigrants.
“It really is a Catch-22 for us,” said Dr. Mark Purtle, vice president of Medical Affairs for Iowa Health System, which includes Iowa Methodist Medical Center. “This is the area that the federal government, the state, everybody says we’re not paying for the undocumented.”
A judge dismissed the lawsuit last year ruling that Iowa Methodist was not to blame for the inadequate care in Veracruz. The courts also found that even though the families of the men may not have consented to their transport to Mexico, they also failed to object to it. An appeals court upheld the dismissal.
In the meantime, people are not only sent back to places that may not have the level of healthcare needed to help them live with and/or recover from their conditions, they are also separated from their families and the lives they created in the US.
Quelino Ojeda Jimenez was working atop a building at Chicago’s Midway Airport in 2010 when he fell, suffering injuries that left him nearly quadriplegic and reliant on a ventilator.
Advocate Christ Medical Center cared for Jimenez for four months, absorbing more than $650,000 in costs, according to a 2011 Chicago Tribune story.
Three days before Christmas that year, the hospital put him aboard a medical flight and sent him to Mexico, even though his family protested. Crying and unable to speak, Jimenez could do nothing to prevent his removal.
The receiving hospital in Mexico lacked rehabilitation services and could not afford new filters for his ventilator. After suffering two heart attacks and a septic infection, Jimenez died on Jan. 2, 2012.