Patient Deportation Case Highlights Issues with Illegal Alien Healthcare

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , July 31, 2009

A medical ethicist says people who are angry at a South Florida hospital for repatriating a brain-damaged patient to his native Guatemala should instead push Congress to expand emergency healthcare coverage to illegal aliens.

Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, says Martin Memorial Medical Center was unfairly criticized after the Stuart, FL hospital chartered an airplane and returned Luis Jimenez, 37, to his native Guatemala in 2003. The hospital had been providing unreimbursed long-term care for the uninsured day laborer ever since he suffered severe head injuries in a 2000 automobile accident that left him partially paralyzed. The hospital placed the value of the uncompensated care at around $1.5 million.

"Those who are outraged over sending him home should try to push for illegal aliens to be covered. Good luck with that," Caplan says. "You can yell at the hospital all you want, but if he was in a public plan they probably would have kept him here because he would have had coverage. In a way, each one of us decided to send him home."

A civil jury in Stuart this week sided with the hospital and rejected claims made by Jimenez's relatives that he was illegally repatriated. Jimenez"s family had sought $1 million to cover the cost of his continuing care in Guatemala, along with unspecified punitive awards to discourage other hospitals from taking similar actions. The case was closely followed by many healthcare and immigration experts because it raises the issue of who is responsible for providing long-term care for illegal aliens who don't qualify for federal or state aid.

While happy with the jury's verdict, Mark E. Robitaille, CEO at Martin Memorial, says he is also disappointed "that the issue of providing healthcare to undocumented immigrants remains unresolved on a state and national level."

"This is not simply an issue facing Martin Memorial. It is a critical dilemma facing healthcare providers across Florida and across the United States," says Robitaille, who was not with the hospital when Jimenez was repatriated. "What is truly unfortunate is that since Mr. Jimenez was first admitted to Martin Memorial nine years ago, nothing has been done to address this issue by our political leadership."

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