Local News

Hospital Policy Could Drive Illegal Immigrants Away, Some Say

Posted August 23, 2005 8:16 a.m. EDT

— Close to 150,000 people walk into WakeMed's emergency room each year seeking help. The hospital treats everyone regardless of ability to pay or immigration status.

"They seek services. They're in need and we're going to provide it," said Debbie Laughery, a spokeswoman for WakeMed. "We are not a policing agency. We never will be."

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  • With that philosophy WakeMed wrote off nearly $100 million in uncompensated charity care this past year. UNC and Duke Hospitals provided just under $50 million each in free care and Rex Hospital provided $24.8 million in free health care.

    Hospitals say they cannot account for how much of that spending is taken up by treating illegal immigrants, but say they are exploring a new billion-dollar federal program to help offset the cost.

    "For us to continue to do our work, we need to get reimbursed where we can," Laughery said. WakeMed stands to gain about $400,000 for participating.

    The catch -- emergency room staff must ask a series of relatively vague questions about a patient's residency status.

    The fact is that hospitals such as WakeMed already ask some of those same questions. They qualify for emergency Medicaid money if they treat undocumented pregnant women and children.

    But Federico van Gelderen, who publishes the Que Pasa Newspaper in Raleigh, believes that no matter the intent, the more questions there are, the higher the chances that more illegal immigrants will shy away from needed care.

    "That can lead to deportation," van Gelderen said. "That will lead a lot of families that are now in place here without going to the hospital -- and those kids really need to have a health care plan."

    According to a 2000 census, the majority of immigrants moving to North Carolina are from Mexico. The next-largest groups are from India, Germany and Canada.

    North Carolina Sen. Hugh Webster, R-Caswell County, an advocate for tougher immigration laws, believes questions should come with care.

    "But we have the right -- we're spending taxpayers' money -- to ask them questions about their legal status," Webster said.

    So, why the questions? Webster believes any information should be turned over to immigration officers.

    Hospital officials say, however, that will not happen. They see the information only as a way to help the government keep track of immigrants' impact on the healthcare system. They have no intention of turning in anyone because of residency status.