Undocumented immigrant in coma set to be returned to Mexico
By Judith Graham and Deanese Williams-Harris
Chicago Tribune reporter
August 20, 2008
A 30-year-old Mexican man in a coma at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago has ignited a dispute over a little-known practice at hospitalssending medically needy undocumented immigrants back to their countries of origin.
The disagreement revolves around Francisco Pantaleon, who arrived in the U.S. 11 years ago and suffered a severe brain hemorrhage in mid-July, according to his sister Socorro. A father of two, Pantaleon worked at a carwash and has no health insurance, she said.
The medical center believes there is “little hope for recovery,” according to a statement released Tuesday, and officials arranged for Pantaleon to be transferred to a hospital in Acapulco at UIC's expense. An official said his immediate family consented to the move.
But Pantaleon's sister and cousin are protesting that arrangement and have retained lawyers in hopes of preventing it. “This is an injustice,” said his sister, who worries that Pantaleon won't survive the trip or find adequate care in Mexico.
The dispute touches on two hot-button issues, Immigration and health care. With the exception of pregnant women some children and people in medical emergencies, illegal immigrants generally have no right to health care in the U.S. But access to long-term carethe kind of services Pantaleon appears to needis not guaranteed even if the patients are U.S. citizens, with the exception of the very poor.
Legally, hospitals are bound to stabilize all patients in an emergency, regardless of their nationality or insurance status. Afterward they are required to arrange to transfer patients to settings where they can receive adequate care, said Doreena Wong, staff attorney for the National Health Law Program. The difficulty is, nursing homes in Chicago usually will not serve undocumented immigrants who don't have health insurance or any means to pay for care.
“We can't arrange long-term care here, so we try to do the best we can in the country of origin,” said Dr. William Chamberlin, chief medical officer at UIC Medical Center.
That can be problematic, said Sonal Ambegaokar, health policy attorney at the National Immigrant Law Center. “The question is, is the hospital acting as an Immigration agent in effect by deporting this patient?” she said. In such cases, she suggests, immigrants may be denied due process.
“It's important to make sure that hospitals aren't permitted to dump patients on an international level when they can't do it on a local level,” said James Geraghty, a Chicago lawyer working with Pantaleon's sister and cousin.
For hospitals, the crucial issue is limited resources. “Hospitals don't have the financial resources to meet all of the acute care needs [of patients without insurance], let alone take on all the chronic care needs that present with patients like this,” Chamberlin said.
Members of Pantaleon's family appealed to the Mexican Consulate for help last week, said Ioana Navarrete, consul for the protection department.
“There were certain legal procedures that the hospital should have followed that they bypassed,” she said, noting that the medical center failed to inform the consulate of plans to move Pantaleon, a Mexican citizen.
Chamberlin said hospital officials did not know that was necessary.
“We have worked with the individual who has had primary decision-making responsibility for the patient” and had that person's full consent, he said.
Chamberlin said he couldn't discuss the details further because the hospital hadn't received permission to relax privacy protections.
Efforts to reach Pantaleon's wife for comment were unsuccessful.
Howard Peters, senior vice president of government relations at the Illinois Hospital Association, said “the family ought to be grateful” that UIC found a facility in Mexico willing to take Pantaleon and volunteered to pay for the trip.
Man who died at N.C. hospital ignored 22 hours
Illinois: Kids up to 26 can be insured by parents
Triage blog: Sending sick undocumented immigrants back home