Palm Beach Post Editorial
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Nine years ago, a drunken driver sent an illegal immigrant to Martin Memorial Medical Center, where he ran up more than $1 million in bills.
Today, Luis Jimenez, a former landscape worker who was left with the IQ of a 10-year-old, lives with his mother in a Guatemalan village. Meanwhile, doctors and lawyers in Florida are preparing for a three-week trial - set to begin Tuesday in Stuart - that will highlight holes in and raise questions about U.S. immigration and health-care policies.
Mr. Jimenez' legal guardian, Montejo Gaspar Montejo of Indiantown, alleges that Martin Memorial administrators falsely imprisoned Mr. Jimenez when they put him on a plane - against Mr. Montejo's wishes - and returned him to Guatemala because they no longer wanted to pay for his care. The hospital, which had a court order allowing the transfer, denies the allegation, saying that treatment close to family was better for Mr. Jimenez.
Mr. Jimenez spent three years at Martin Memorial, far longer than he needed to, but the hospital had nowhere to send him. As an undocumented immigrant who had no insurance and was ineligible for Medicaid, he couldn't pay a rehabilitation facility. Martin Memorial, like all providers that receive Medicare and Medicaid payments, can, under federal guidelines, discharge patients only to a facility that will provide the next level of appropriate care.
So the hospital asked a circuit court judge for permission to move Mr. Jimenez to a hospital in Guatemala. In June 2003, the judge agreed. In May 2004, the 4th District Court of Appeal overturned that decision, ruling that the judge had no authority to order what amounted to a deportation. But Martin Memorial had sent Mr. Jimenez out of the country. Just as Mr. Montejo had predicted, that hospital kicked him out when he couldn't pay. As did the next hospital.
Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, said the hospital was right. "We don't have an uninsured crisis. We have an immigration crisis," said Mr. Krikorian, noting that one-third of the 47 million uninsured in the U.S. are immigrants. "The long-term goal has to be reducing immigration of people who are going to end up in a hospital unable to pay. We need less legal immigration and better enforcement against illegal immigration."
However, a 2005 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that while immigrants comprised 10 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for only 8 percent of U.S. health-care costs. According to the study, the primary reason immigrants use the health-care system less is lack of insurance.
Susana Barciela, policy director for the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, said the current system forces hospitals to absorb the costs of treating illegal immigrants and make decisions outside their purview. "What we need is an immigration system that works for this country, not against it," she said. "You've got to have immigration reform to legalize the people who are here, so you don't have this problem."
This case will highlight two of this country's biggest unresolved problems. Whatever the result in court, the solutions to those problems must come from Washington.