A comatose patient at Lehigh Valley Network’s Cedar Crest Hospital in Allentown, PA may soon be on her way to the Dominican Republic despite her family wanting to keep her in the U.S.
The 46-year-old woman and mother of two was admitted to the facility after suffering an aneurysm. She underwent immediate surgery, but unexpected complications forced the staff to put her in a medically induced coma.
The patient’s husband, Junior Rivas, who doesn’t want to use his real name due to his immigration status, has been looking for a long-term facility for his wife for the last two months, but the hospital wants to send her to a medical facility in the Dominican Republic because she isn’t an American citizen.
Rivas said his wife’s care went downhill once the hospital found out about their immigration status. Lehigh Valley has yet to comment publicly on the case due to patient privacy, but a letter from the company dated March 1 states that the hospital’s case manager learned that Rivas’s wife was a citizen of the Dominican Republic in early January while investigating options for continued care and that it would be difficult to find her a long-term acute care hospital because these facilities “do not accept medical assistance or patients who are not in the United States on a valid visa.”
The case manager then explained to Rivas and his wife via an interpreter that they would need to send her to the Dominican Republic for care and that they contacted 258 facilities in Pennsylvania but no one agreed to take her in.
Last month, the hospital started working with a private medical escort company called MedEscort to arrange the trip.
“At this point, we explained that as your wife was not a valid citizen, rehabilitation facilities will not accept her for long-term care needs. During this meeting, we explained how returning to the Dominican Republic with the assistance of MedEscort might be the only option,” the hospital staff said during a February 6 meeting.
Rivas said he doesn’t want to transport his wife by plane because he is afraid she might not survive the trip. “If I take my wife to the Dominican Republic in the state that she is now, what would I tell my sons?” Rivas said. “I’m going to fight until the end, so that my sons can say – even if God decides to take my wife – at least dad did all that he could.”
The only other option, the hospital told him, was for him to pay $500 a day for his wife to continue receiving care at Lehigh Valley, but Rivas said he couldn’t afford it.
Immigrant rights groups have since flocked to Rivas’s defense. A group of protesters recently demonstrated outside the hospital to voice their opposition to the hospital’s decision to deport Rivas’s wife. The facility called security and eventually had them removed from the premises. Several groups, including the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Free Migration, and Make the Road Pennsylvania, have all offered support to his family.
Daniel Cortes, an immigration attorney from Reading who has been advising the family, said many medical deportations happen without the consent of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration in the U.S. He added that patients facing deportation usually have other options at their disposal.
“They can do what’s called an emergency medical assistance application for a nursing home or specialized care, and if the state approves that, they would have to determine that the care that this patient requires at a nursing home or a facility is necessary to sustain or maintain her life,” Cortes said. “I think that’s going to be an easy lift.”
The hospital recently granted Rivas a seven-day extension, but it’s not clear if it will reverse its decision. However, Cortes said he believes the company is “going to give it a good-faith try in terms of submitting an application” for emergency medical assistance.”
Rivas said he plans to meet with the case manager again this week but fears his wife’s time in the U.S. may be running out. He also said he refused to sign the paperwork authorizing her deportation but the case manager told him that his signature wasn’t required.
Maripat Pileggi, supervising attorney at Community Legal Services, said hospitals have a habit of not sharing paperwork, citing patient privacy laws, or not applying for emergency medical insurance through the state.
“The thing that’s most frustrating for me often as a public benefits lawyer is people are told that they have no possible way to get any kind of insurance coverage for the healthcare that they need here, because they are completely uninsurable, they will not be able to access the health care they need here. And so, they just have to go to another country, which oftentimes is false,” Pileggi said.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, undocumented immigrants can receive federally funded Medicaid through the Emergency Medical Assistance program (EMA), which will cover a specific emergency medical condition if the individual meets the income, resources, and category requirements of Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program. Applications are usually processed within five business days. If additional information is needed, the application would have to go through a county assistance office, which can take up to 45 days.
Data on medical deportations in the U.S. remains limited.
“What’s really concerning is how many other cases have there been? How many of them are flying under the radar?” said Julio Rodriguez, political director for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition in Philadelphia. “Hospitals should not be allowed to do this. They’re getting a state license to operate. They’re getting funding from the state.”