April 23, 2013

U.S. hospitals send hundreds of immigrants back home

The system, called "medical repatriation," allows hospitals to put patients on chartered international flights, often while they are still unconscious.

The Associated Press

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Jacinto Rodriguez Cruz, 49, leaves his home in a wheelchair with the help of his wife, Belen Hernandez, in Veracruz, Mexico, recently. Cruz and another friend suffered serious injuries during a car accident in May 2008 in northwestern Iowa. After their employers' insurance coverage ran out, Cruz, who was not a legal citizen, was placed on a private airplane and flown to Mexico still comatose and unable to discuss his care or voice his protest.

AP

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In this Wednesday March 6, 2013 photo, Jose Guadalupe Rodriguez-Saldana, 38, walks with orthopedic supports outside of his home in the town of Tierra Blanca, Veracruz state, Mexico. Rodriguez-Saldana and another friend suffered serious injuries during a car accident last May 2008 in northwestern Iowa. After their employers insurance coverage ran out, Rodriguez-Saldana, who was not a legal citizen, was placed on a private airplane and flown to Mexico still comatose and unable to discuss his care or voice his protest. Hospitals confronted with absorbing the cost of caring for uninsured seriously injured immigrants are quietly deporting them, often unconscious and unable to protest, back to their home countries. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Some patients who were sent home subsequently died in hospitals that weren't equipped to meet their needs. Others suffered lingering medical problems because they never received adequate rehabilitation, the report said.

Gail Montenegro, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency "plays no role in a health care provider's private transfer of a patient to his or her country of origin."

Such transfers "are not the result of federal authority or action," she said in an email, nor are they considered "removals, deportations or voluntary departures" as defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The two Mexican workers in Iowa came to the U.S. in search of better jobs and found work at Iowa Select Farms, which provided them with medical insurance even though they had no visas or other immigration documents.

An Iowa Select Farms spokeswoman said Tuesday she could find no record that the men worked for the company under those names. The attorney for the two men said he learned through subpoenas that they had worked for a pork company that he believes was once a subsidiary of Iowa Select.

The two were returning home from a fishing trip in May 2008 when their car was struck by a semitrailer truck. Both were thrown from the vehicle and suffered serious head injuries.

At the time, Cruz had been here for about six months, Rodriguez-Saldana for a little over a year.

Insurance paid more than $100,000 for the two men's emergency treatment. But it was unclear whether the policies would pay for long-term rehabilitation. Two rehabilitation centers refused to take them.

Eleven days after the car crash, the two men were still comatose as they were carried aboard a jet bound for Veracruz, where a hospital had agreed to take them.

Rodriguez-Saldana, now 39, said the Des Moines hospital told his family that he was unlikely to survive and should be sent home.

The hospital "doesn't really want Mexicans," he said in a telephone interview with the AP. "They wanted to disconnect me so I could die. They said I couldn't survive, that I wouldn't live."

Hospital officials said they could not discuss the case because of litigation. The men and their families filed a lawsuit in 2010 claiming they received minimal rehabilitative care in Veracruz.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit last year ruling that Iowa Methodist was not to blame for the inadequate care in Veracruz. The courts also found that even though the families of the men may not have consented to their transport to Mexico, they also failed to object to it. An appeals court upheld the dismissal.

Patients are frequently told family members want them to come home. In cases where the patient is unconscious or can't communicate, relatives are told their loved one wants to return, De Leon said.

Sometimes they're told the situation is dire, and the patient may die, prompting many grief-stricken relatives to agree to a transfer, he said.

Some hospitals "emotionally extort family members in their home country," De Leon said. "They make family members back home feel guilty so they can simply put them on a plane and drop them off at the airport."

In court documents, Iowa hospital officials said they had received permission from Saldana's parents and Cruz's long-term partner for the flight to Mexico. Family members deny they gave consent.

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