For Illegal Immigrant, Line Is Drawn at Transplant

Nina Bernstein, CNBC, December 21, 2011

Without treatment to replace his failing kidneys, doctors knew, the man in Bellevue hospital would die. He was a waiter in his early 30s, a husband and father of two, so well liked at the Manhattan restaurant where he had worked for a decade that everyone from the customers to the dishwasher was donating money to help his family.

He was also an illegal immigrant. So when his younger brother volunteered to donate a kidney to restore him to normal life, they encountered a health care paradox: the government would pay for a lifetime of dialysis, costing $75,000 a year, but not for the $100,000 transplant that would make it unnecessary.

For nearly two years, the brothers and their supporters have been hunting for a way to make the transplant happen. Their journey has taken them through a maze of conflicting laws, private insurance conundrums and ethical quandaries, back to the national impasse between health care and immigration policies.

The waiter’s boss sought private insurance, she and the brothers said, speaking on the condition that their names be withheld for fear of provoking immigration authorities. The Catch-22: for the first year, the waiter, called Angel, would get no coverage for his “pre-existing condition,” nor would he receive the dialysis that keeps him alive and able to work four days a week.

Doctors sought a transplant center that would take him. Hospitals in the city receive millions of taxpayer dollars to help offset care for illegal immigrants and other uninsured patients. But at one hospital, administrators apparently overruled surgeons willing to waive their fees. At another, Angel was told to come back when he had legal status or $200,000.

A last resort is a return to Mexico, where the operation costs about $40,000. But to pay off the necessary loans, Angel and his brother, a deli worker, would have to sneak back in through the desert. If they failed, they would be cut off from their children in Brooklyn, who are United States citizens.

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{snip} “They should not get any benefit from breaking the law, especially something as expensive as organ transplants or dialysis,” said Representative Dana T. Rohrabacher, Republican of California, who contends that care for illegal immigrants is bankrupting American health care and has sought to require that emergency rooms report stabilized patients for deportation unless they prove citizenship or legal residence.

“If they’re dead, I don’t have an objection to their organs being used,” Mr. Rohrabacher added. “If they’re alive, they shouldn’t be here no matter what.”

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