Within the past five years, more than 600 undocumented immigrants have been sent back to their native country while seeking care in American hospitals, according to a report from the Center for Social Justice. Undocumented patients are generally ineligible for public health insurance and unable to afford private health insurance. For some undocumented patients with insurance coverage, they still face deportation orders not by the U.S. government, but by hospitals seeking to avoid the costs of long-term care.
Hospitals are obligated to treat patients regardless of immigration status until their conditions stabilize. At that point, patients are transferred to long term care facilities such as rehabilitation centers. But in some cases the Center for Social Justice uncovered that immigrants were deported while unconscious, waking up in Mexico after undergoing extensive surgery for injuries sustained in a car accident. In another extreme case, a 20-year-old worker became nearly quadriplegic after a construction injury. When the hospital refused to prolong his care on a ventilator, he was deported and died in Mexico. Cases like these have become increasingly common in hospitals where medical repatriation occurs because hospital personnel believe that patients will be unable to pay their bills.
At the intersection of immigration law and human rights, medical repatriation is an often necessary but cruel fact of life for hospitals that are facing financial cutbacks and the inability to be reimbursed:
The American Hospital Association said it does not have a specific policy governing immigrant removals, and it does not track how many hospitals encounter the issue.
Nessel expects medical removals to increase with implementation of health care reform, which makes many more patients eligible for Medicaid. As a result, the government plans to cut payments to hospitals that care for the uninsured.
Some hospitals call immigration authorities when they receive patients without immigration documentation, but the government rarely responds, Nessel said. Taking custody of the patient would also require the government to assume financial responsibility for care.
The lack of federal funding is partially responsible for hospitals having to use medical repatriation that forces patients to die. Yet hospitals have de facto ruling on sending an immigrant, even a comatose one, back to a country while he is still too sick to transport.
Meanwhile, anti-immigration voices even believe that there is nothing wrong with enforcing immigration checks before patients can be admitted to hospitals.