Doctor’s Orders: Go to Mexico

Harvey Rice, Houston Chronicle, February 7, 2011

The crushing news came last month as Maria Sanchez was being prepared for surgery to remove a banana-size tumor along her spine that had crept between her vertebrae.

Unable to use her right hand because of the growing tumor, Sanchez, 24, had been at the University of Texas Medical Branch’s John Sealy Hospital for six days when, she said, a Spanish-speaking doctor told her she had to leave the hospital immediately because she was an illegal immigrant. The doctor said she should have surgery in Mexico, according to Sanchez.

Sanchez’s hospital records state that she was discharged because she was “an undocumented pt (patient) with no insurance.” Records show that Sanchez underwent at least one medical procedure and surgery was scheduled before she was dismissed without warning Jan. 12.

After being discharged, Sanchez called her husband, Luis Aguillon, a legal U.S. resident, who arrived at the hospital to find his wife and his mother sitting on her bed crying.

“They treated us like animals, like dogs or something,” said Aguillon, 36, an unemployed welder.

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Losing use of limbs

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“If we are going to be brutally honest, this is a practice that takes place at other hospitals,” Nealon [Bill Nealon, a former UTMB general surgeon now at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.] said. “The real problem for UTMB is that it was documented, and they have a commitment for care to the indigent.”

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No law either prohibits or requires hospitals to accept illegal immigrants as patients outside the emergency room, experts said. In cases where a patient’s immigration status is an issue, it’s generally in the context of the patient’s inability to pay, they said.

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Told to go to Mexico

Aguillon said his wife’s ability to pay was never mentioned and he was handed an application for charity care on his way out after his wife was refused care.

Under a heading for follow-up appointments, Sanchez’s discharge order states, “With PCP (primary care physician) in one week, NS (neurosurgery) as scheduled in Mexico.”

Aguillon said he was upset about being told to take his wife to Mexico, a country he left when he was 13. “It’s like saying to that black lady, because she is black, go to Africa,” he said.

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State law requires hospitals to have a charity policy prominently posted in waiting rooms, but Lenihan [Dr. Merle Lenihan, author of a 2009 report on hospital charity care policies in Galveston County] says UTMB’s policy is so vague that there is no way to know how decisions to deny charity care are being made. She said it was especially troubling that the public has no way to know how a taxpayer-funded institution decides how it uses tax money designated for charity care.

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Accepted as patient

Medical records show that Sanchez was admitted to the emergency room at Clear Lake Regional Medical Center on Jan. 5. The next day she was transferred to UTMB because Clear Lake doctors lacked the neurosurgical skills needed to treat her, the records state.

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Aguillon eventually took his wife to at least five hospitals and three clinics. Aguillon finally moved from Galveston to Houston so he could qualify for care at Ben Taub General Hospital, where she is being treated.

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