Over the past few weeks, medical organizations and health care providers have come out against Arizona’s new immigration law, citing the likelihood that it will discourage a large segment of the population from seeking health care. Yesterday, however, Lucas Restrepo, M.D., published a piece in the New England Journal of Medicine that provided a whole new angle on the effect SB-1070 will have on the medical profession. Restrepo points out that, under the law, health care providers who treat undocumented immigrants could be considered criminals:
The new Arizona state immigration bill (SB-1070) signed into law on April 23 will seriously obstruct, if not undermine, the practice of medicine in the state of Arizona. It specifies that those who “conceal, harbor or shield or attempt to conceal, harbor or shield” a foreign person who came to the United States illicitly “are guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor” punishable by a fine of at least $1,000 (Sec. 5, Section 13-2929). It can be argued that health care providers who neglect to report illegal immigrants under their care will violate the law and be considered criminals. [...]
Asking patients to produce immigration documents violates the trust that physicians, nurses, and other health care workers endeavor to earn from them. This bill threatens one of the oldest traditions of medicine: physicians shall protect patients regardless of nationality or race. This legislation, if unchallenged, will force health care providers to choose between the dignity of their profession and the indignity of violating the law.
In his column, Restrepo notes the bill provides physicians (and police for that matter) with no criteria when it comes to what constitutes “reasonable grounds” to suspect that someone is undocumented. As a result, he worries that “health care providers in Arizona will need to ask for a passport before seeing certain patients (and providers themselves will need to carry their own passports at all times, depending on their physical appearance or accent).”
Studies have shown that, on average, immigrants are healthier than US citizens, use less medical care, use less expensive care, and do not impose a disproportionate financial burden on the U.S. health care system. However, accidents can happen to anyone and everyone gets sick at some point. Discouraging or denying treatment of undocumented immigrants in such incidents doesn’t just hurt them, it puts everyone at risk. According to experts, health care access to any population could lead to a health crisis that affects everyone.
Wonk Room previously reported that Dr. Winston Wong — Medical Director of community benefit at Kaiser Permanente — has gone as far as to argue that doctors have a professional obligation to oppose any measure that endangers the care of their patients and the public’s general health, including SB-1070. Last month, medical organizations representing more than 156,000 health care providers released a statement blasting Arizona’s new immigration law, calling it “an affront to human rights and a devastating step backwards for the health and well being of the entire nation.”