by Shena Elrington, Staff Attorney
Undocumented immigrants lack access to viable long-term care options. This is hardly surprising, given the surge in anti-immigrant sentiment, the serious budget crises facing federal, state and local governments and the piecemeal way in which we approach health care delivery. Although not surprising, the lack of long-term care options has very real consequences for both the lives of these immigrants and the overall well-being of the healthcare system.
A flurry of recent newspaper articles has brought the plight facing undocumented immigrants in need of long-term care into sharp focus. In the typical scenario, an undocumented immigrant suffers a catastrophic injury or illness, such as stroke, and is rushed to the emergency room, where she receives care, as required by federal law. The initial injury or illness may have been so severe that the patient becomes incapacitated, unable to feed or care for herself. The hospital then looks for appropriate long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, to care for the patient. Finding such a facility, however, is nearly impossible because the patient cannot pay out of pocket and is ineligible for Medicaid because of her immigration status. The hospital, unable to find an appropriate facility to discharge the patient, chooses whether to continue to treat the patient, at a cost of several thousand dollars per day, for an indefinite period of time.
Some undocumented immigrants who find themselves in this precarious situation fare better than others. They all, however, live in a constant state of uncertainty, unsure of when the hospital will stop caring for them. And when the hospital terminates treatment, as it inevitably will, undocumented immigrants are faced with a truly terrifying range of “choices”, leading them closer and closer to death.
In September, a hospital in Atlanta refused to provide dialysis to nearly two dozen undocumented immigrants who had been receiving treatment for years. As deadly toxins built up in their systems, some immigrants sought care at various emergency departments, but were refused treatment because their conditions had not deteriorated significantly enough to trigger the hospital’s duty to provide emergency care under federal law. These immigrants were forced to wait until they were literally at death’s door to receive treatment. After much wrangling and public outrage, the hospital agreed to continue to provide dialysis for three more years.
But, what happens when that three-year period comes to an end?
Some hospitals, acting outside the federal immigration process, actually contract with private transport agencies to have these patients, with or without their consent, flown back to their home countries, without ensuring that there are any healthcare facilities in those countries able to support their needs. In essence, these immigrants are sent home to die. Based on our work with community partners and advocates, we know these “medical deportations” are not isolated events.
The perils undocumented immigrants in need of long-term care face are the direct result of failures in our immigration and health policies. Our current system mandates that hospitals provide care to undocumented immigrants when they are so ill that they require emergency treatment, at the most expensive point of access in the health care system – the emergency room – yet provides no real avenue for them to receive cheaper preventative care or be moved from more expensive acute care facilities to more appropriate, and less expensive, long term care facilities like nursing homes when necessary.
While health reform expanded the number of Americans eligible for Medicaid, it fell short of including undocumented immigrants – prohibiting them from even purchasing insurance within the exchanges. While the majority of undocumented immigrants are young and healthy, it is inevitable that tragedy will strike at one point or another and some immigrants will need long-term care. Our current policies make no provisions for this eventuality. Worst yet, there is virtually no oversight over hospitals that repatriate patients to their home countries, discharging them to family members or facilities abroad that often lack the means to properly care for them. And, there is little to no discussion of the legal and ethical breaches healthcare providers and hospitals may be committing by failing to discharge undocumented immigrants to appropriate healthcare facilities.
We need to discuss these issues, even if talking about them is difficult in a political climate where anti-immigrant sentiment runs rampant and budget cuts seem to always land on the backs of the poor, because some of our most fundamental values are at stake. Just a few weeks ago, we glimpsed the erosion of these values during a Republican presidential nominee debate, when the audience proudly affirmed their willingness to let a hypothetical 30 year old man who needed intensive care die because he opted out of health insurance. There is little doubt that this crowd would feel the same way about an undocumented immigrant in need of care, who had no access to insurance to begin with. Is this really the kind of world we want to live in?