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Health funds plan may seek immigrant status of patients

Under the 2003 Medicare Act, Congress approved a $1 billion reimbursement package for hospitals, but to apply for the money health care facilities may be required by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to ask patients whether they are in the country legally."By making doctors and nurses immigration agents, the federal government will strike fear in hardworking immigrants," said U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), who in May opposed a piece of legislation that would have placed similar requirements on hospitals.The federal government insists the questions are necessary to verify that the money, which individual hospitals must apply for, is being spent appropriately. But Ana Maria Achila, executive director of the Woodside-based Latin American Integration Center, said the $12 million a year New York state hospitals are slated to receive is not enough to justify the administrative or psychological cost of collecting the data."It really sends a horrible, horrible message to immigrant communities," Achila said. "Instead of having hospitals treat diabetes, they're gonna end up treating kidney failure. Instead of having a regular ob-gyn visit, they are going to be treating cervical cancer."In a statement, the New York Health and Hospitals Corp., which oversees Elmhurst Hospital Center and Queens Hospital Center, said "HHC is pleased that Congress has recognized the importance of reimbursing hospitals for part of the expense of emergency services provided to undocumented individuals. However we are vehemently opposed to (the agency's) proposed requirement to ask patients about their immigration status. This would pose a significant public health threat to entire communities because it may keep undocumented immigrants from seeking care for communicable diseases."Non-immigrant communities might also be affected if illegal aliens decide not to seek treatment, opponents of the plan said"You do not want to scare these people away that may need immediate medical attention," said Mike Cotton, director of patient access at St. Joseph's Hospital, a private hospital Elmhurst. "That is our biggest fear because we are health care organizations we're about caring for the needs of the community."According to Crowley, the proposed questions include:¥ "Are you a United States citizen?"¥ "Are you a lawful permanent resident, an alien with a valid current employment authorization card or other qualified alien?"¥ "Are you in the United States on a nonimmigrant visa?"¥ Are you a foreign citizen who has been admitted to the United States with a 72-hour border crossing card?"Achila said she had seen a copy of the proposed questionnaire and that it contained more than 10 "intimidating questions" on two pages.Answers to the questions would not be reported to the government, but they would be kept on record at the hospital and made available to federal auditors, Crowley said. Although the proposal does not currently call for the information to be shared with immigration or law enforcement officials, Achila said once the information is collected it would be easy for the administration to take the next step.The public comment period for the regulations ended this week. The final regulations are slated to be published Sept. 1. The Department of Health and Human Services did not return phone calls requesting comment.Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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