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Hospital out $72,000 for treating migrants

THELMA GRIMES

News-Sun

3/8/02

Hospital officials said the facility is out $72,000 in costs incurred over the past two years for providing care for undocumented migrants, due to failure on behalf of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Border Patrol) to take responsibility for injured or sick entrants that require hospitalization.

Denise Hurtado, hospital chief financial officer, said the only time hospitals can only be reimbursed when the person under care has been placed under arrest by agents.

By law, according to Hurtado, the hospital must treat all patients, regardless of immigration status.

"Sometimes border agents will drop them off at the emergency- room door," Hurtado said. "Some of the agents will come in with them but they aren't under arrest. After we treat them, we usually just let them go. They walk away and we don't keep track of them. We use to notify the border patrol that they were here, but I can't say they ever really did anything about it."

After being pressed by U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz, representing Arizona's 5th Congressional District, a top U.S. Border Patrol official admitted Friday, Feb. 22, his agency avoids arresting sick or injured migrants so the federal government doesn't have to pay for their medical care.

Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief David Aguilar made the admission during testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Government Reform subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources hearing in Sierra Vista two weeks ago.

"It's a big problem, said Ron McKinnon, the hospital's chief executive officer. "And it's everybody's problem, not just ours. If undocumented aliens come to the ER, we treat them, no questions asked. We've talked to the border patrol about this problem and they essentially say they aren't responsible."

The problem facing rural hospitals is not exclusive to Benson.

Cochise County is losing millions of dollars annually. Jim Dickson, CEO of Copper Queen Hospital in Bisbee, has reported losses of more than a quarter of a million dollars in 2001.

The hospital spent $277,292 for treatment, $15,576 for emergency care at the facility, $54,616 for emergency helicopter transportation and $207,100 for care provided by Maricopa Medical Center. Dickson told Sierra Vista reporters; none of the bill was paid.

"We don't treat as many illegals at Benson Hospital as the hospitals closer to the border," Hurtado said. "But it's certainly not good for us."

Hurtado said it cost the hospital $37,000 to treat 22 undocumented patients in 2001, she said in 2000 the hospital lost $35,000.

Hurtado said there's no where to apply for funds to replace the cost of immigrant care. She said Benson Hospital hosted a meeting in April 2001 for Southern Arizona Hospitals.

During the meeting hospital officials voiced concerns over the money lost annually treating migrants.

As a senior member of the State Appropriations Committee, Kolbe secured $3 million for health and education in December 2001.

More than half the money was distributed to three border hospitals. However, Hurtado said Benson and the Northern Cochise Hospital in Willcox were excluded.

The Bisbee hospital received $660,000, Community Healthcare of Douglas received $300,000 and the Sierra Vista Regional Health Center was reimbursed $600,000.