Jury Will Decide If Unreasonable and Unwarrented
IMAGE SOURCE: So Florida Sun Sentinel Web site/ image of Luis Jimenez
A South Florida hospital quietly chartered a plane and sent a brain-injured Guatemalan man back to his country over the objections of his family and guardian. Now a case against the hospital is in the hands of the jury.
Closing arguments concluded Thursday in a first-of-its kind case that pits health care against immigration and tests whether hospitals should provide long-term care for patients who don’t qualify for state and federal aid.
37-year-old Luis Jimenez, a Mayan Indian, was an illegal immigrant, working in Florida and sending money back home to his wife and young sons when in 2000, a drunk driver hit the van in which he was riding. Jimenez was left a paraplegic with severe brain injury and disabilities. His cousin, Montejo Gaspar became his legal guardian, reports the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Over three years, Martin Memorial Medical Center in Stuart, Florida provided $1.5 million worth of care.
But the hospital sought a letter from the Guatemalan government and got a Florida judge to order a transfer of the patient. In July 2003, it quietly chartered a $30,000 charter plane and flew Jimenez back to Guatemala, without telling the family. His cousin, Gaspar filed an emergency request to stop the transfer.
Federal law states the hospital was required to care for Jimenez. Hospitals that receive Medicare reimbursements are required to provide emergency care until a patient is stabilized and a discharge plan is filed.
The problem was that no institution would care for Jimenez because of his immigration status.
His cousin filed the lawsuit seeking nearly $1 million to cover Jimenez’s lifetime care costs in Guatemala. Also included are punitive damages to discourage other hospitals for deporting patients, a job usually left up to federal immigration authorities.
A 2004 appeals court decision established the hospital overstepped its authority by sending Jimenez back to Guatemala and that he was “unlawfully detained and deprived of liberty”.
But in his closing arguments of the month-long trial, hospital attorney, Scott Machaud asked the six-member jury why Martin Memorial should pay for a lifetime of care “for injuries we didn’t even cause?”
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 Stuart, just north of the exclusive community of Palm Beach.
The jury is charged with finding whether the hospital's actions were "unreasonable and unwarranted under the circumstances," reports the New York Times, and whether the actions had harmed Jimenez.
An Internist POV
Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Doc Gurley says most Americans feel they would also be dumped after three years, but "being discharged here in the States is not quite the same as being discharged to a remote Guatemalan mountain village, particularly for someone with serious permanent illness." A priest visint Jimenez said he appeared clean, living with his mother in a one room home, "and would survive, I guessed, until his first pneumonia".
Doc Gurley says "If you discharge someone without meeting those standards (stabilized patient and a discharge plan) tht's what's called, in this country's jargon, dumping - a practice that's generally considered not only unethical, but one that can also get a hospital's license yanked."
The case could set precedent in Florida and possibly beyond. A spokeswoman from the South Florida Hospital & Healthcare Association says this case may make hospital more reluctant to admit uninsured immigrants.
The priest from South Florida who visited Jimenez, Rev. Frank O’Laughlin said a country that uses cheap labor from other countries should factor in the cost of catastrophic injuries, either coverage coming from employers or ensuring hospital care in case of an accident.
Among the roughly 47 million uninsured in the U.S. an estimated 15 percent are illegal immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. #