Last year, when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed off on a stringent immigration law — SB-1070 — medical organizations and health care providers came out against it, citing the likelihood that it will discourage a large segment of the population from seeking health care. One doctor, Lucas Restrepo, M.D., even wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that health care providers who treat undocumented immigrants could be considered criminals due to a provision in the law that makes it illegal to “conceal, harbor or shield or attempt to conceal, harbor or shield” a person who is undocumented.
SB-1070 may have that effect, but it wasn’t directed at health care providers. A new law that will be considered today is. The Arizona state Senate Judiciary Committee will be holding a public hearing on SB-1405, a bill that would require hospitals to check patients’ immigration status. More specifically, SB-1405 would require hospitals to conduct an immigration status check before admitting a patient for non-emergency care. If the person is in the country illegally, hospitals will be forced to report the patient to federal authorities. If a hospital chooses not to follow these requirements, it could be sued. The bill states:
A. Before a hospital admits a person for nonemergency care, a hospital admissions officer must confirm that the person is a citizen of the United States, a legal resident of the United States, or lawfully present in the United States. The admissions officer may use any method prescribed in Section 1-501 to verify citizenship or legal status.
B. If the admissions officer determines that the person does not meet the requirements of Subsection A of this section, the admissions officer must contact the local federal immigration office.
C. If the hospital provides emergency medical care pursuant to federal requirements to a person who does not meet the requirements of Subsection A of this section, on successful treatment of the patient the admissions officer must contact the local federal immigration office.
D. A hospital that complies with the requirements of this section is not subject to civil liability.
In his piece on SB-1070, Restrepo wrote, “Asking patients to produce immigration documents violates the trust that physicians, nurses, and other health care workers endeavor to earn from them.” He concluded that “This bill [SB-1070] 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.” 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.
Meanwhile, other health care providers have pointed out the practical problems associated with mixing immigration enforcement with medical care. According to experts, discouraging or denying treatment of undocumented immigrants could put everyone at risk and lead to a health crisis that affects large populations.