Fla. jury mulls hospital deportation case

Fla. jury mulls hospital deportation case

By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ, AP Hispanic Affairs Writer Laura Wides-munoz, Ap Hispanic Affairs Writer Thu Jul 23, 7:24 pm ET

STUART, Fla. – A jury began deliberations Thursday in the case of a South Florida hospital that quietly chartered a plane and sent a seriously brain injured illegal immigrant back to Guatemala over the objections of his family and legal guardian.

Health care and immigration experts across the country are closely watching the lawsuit play out. Lawyers say it may be the first of its kind and underscores the dilemma facing hospitals with patients who require long-term care, are unable to pay and don’t qualify for federal or state aid because of their immigration status.

Why should Martin Memorial Medical Center have to pay for a lifetime of care “for injuries we didn’t even cause?” hospital attorney Scott Machaud asked the six-member jury during closing arguments of the monthlong trial. He said the hospital saved the life of 37-year-old Luis Jimenez and provided the uninsured man with $1.5 million worth of care, only to be unfairly hit with a lawsuit.

“Paging Alice in Wonderland, where up is down and down is up and no good deed goes unpunished,” Machaud exclaimed.

However, under federal law, Martin Memorial was required to care for Luis Jimenez until someone else would take him. Because of his immigration status, no one else would. But hospitals that receive Medicare reimbursements are required to provide emergency care to all patients and must provide an acceptable discharge plan once the patient is stabilized.

The lawsuit seeks nearly $1 million to cover the estimated lifetime costs of his care in Guatemala, as well as damages for the hospital’s alleged “false imprisonment” and punitive damages to discourage other medical centers from taking similar action.

Jimenez was a Mayan Indian who was sending money home to his wife and young sons when a drunk driver plowed into a van he was riding in in 2000, leaving him a paraplegic with the mental capability of a fourth grader. Because of his brain injury, his cousin Montejo Gaspar was made his legal guardian.

Jimenez spent nearly three years at Martin Memorial before the hospital, backed by a letter from the Guatemalan government, got a Florida judge to OK the transfer to a Guatemalan facility. Gaspar appealed.

But without telling Jimenez’s family — and the day after Gaspar filed an emergency request to stop the hospital’s plan — the hospital put Jimenez on a $30,000 charter flight home in the early hours of July 10, 2003.

Weeks later, Jimenez was released from the Guatemalan hospital and soon wound up in his aging mother’s 1-room home in a remote mountain village.

The case has raised the question of whether a hospital and a state court should be deciding whether to deport someone — a power long held by the federal government.

In 2004, an appeals court ruled the lower court had overstepped its authority, and that the hospital did not have the right to return Jimenez to Guatemala.

Before sending them to the jury room Thursday, Martin County Senior Judge James Midelis told jurors that the appeals court had already decided that Jimenez was “unlawfully detained and deprived of liberty.” Midelis said the jury’s task was to decide whether the hospital’s actions were “unreasonable and unwarranted under the circumstances,” and whether its actions had in turn caused Jimenez damage.

Machaud said the hospital was simply following a judge’s order at the time.

But in his closing arguments earlier Thursday, a lawyer for Gaspar and Jimenez said the hospital decided to secretly send Jimenez back to Guatemala to halt what would have been a long and expensive appeals process.

“The plan was designed once and for all to stop the meter from running, to stop the expenses … to stop the case from going all the way up to the Supreme Court — because Luis Jimenez was gone,” attorney Jack Hill told the packed courtroom in the sleepy South Florida town of Stuart, just north of the exclusive community of Palm Beach.

The case could set precedent in Florida and possibly beyond.

“Regardless of the decision, it will heighten the awareness of hospitals nationwide. The next time they debate shipping a patient overseas, they’re going to have to do their homework because it’s going to leave them open to a lot of legal challenges and questions,” said Steve Larson, an assistant dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and medical director of a nonprofit clinic for Latino immigrants.

Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital & Healthcare Association, disagreed. She said hospitals may become even more wary about providing extended care to uninsured immigrants.

Hospitals are already struggling under the staggering costs of treating the nation’s roughly 47 million uninsured. Illegal immigrants make up an estimated 15 percent of this group, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Jimenez’s guardian initially supported sending Jimenez back to Guatemala, but became concerned after it became unclear just where he would go. By the time Gaspar won his appeal to block the hospital’s plan, it was too late. By then, Jimenez was living with his 73-year-old mother 12 hours from the Guatemalan capital.

A South Florida Roman Catholic priest visited Jimenez to check on his condition. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, he described Jimenez as clean and glad to see visitors.

“It seemed that he was cooperating with his caregiver and would survive, I guessed, until his first pneumonia,” wrote the Rev. Frank O’Laughlin.

O’Laughlin called the lawsuit important. He and Larson say a country that relies on cheap immigrant labor for everything from agriculture, to clothing to construction, should factor in the cost of catastrophic injuries to those providing essential services — whether it means requiring employers to offer coverage for day laborers or ensuring public and nonprofit hospitals can care for them.

Carla Luggiero, a senior associate director for American Hospital Association, said that cases such as Jimenez’s are rare. Most of the time, hospitals are able to work with the families to find acceptable care.

But she also warned the issue is serious, and said the federal government should address it as it debates health care reform.

“There is absolutely no discussion about it,” Luggiero said.

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