- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

Mexican ambulance drivers are transporting hospital patients unable to pay for medical care or emergency-room services in their country to facilities in the United States, where their treatment is mandated by federal law, authorities said yesterday.
The border crossings have been reported from Brownsville, Texas, to Douglas, Ariz., and involve Mexican ambulance companies whose drivers have been instructed by hospital officials in Mexico to take ailing and uninsured patients to the United States, the authorities said.
The patients are being transported through the U.S.-Mexico border's many unguarded crossings when hospitals along the border are reporting losses of more than $200 million in unreimbursed costs for treating illegal aliens, and the numbers continue to rise.
"It's a phenomenon we noticed some time ago, one that has expanded very rapidly," said a federal law-enforcement official familiar with the problem. "Hospitals in Mexico are pointing the ambulances north when they discover a patient can't pay for services and has no insurance. They know they can get treatment in this country."
The federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act mandates that U.S. hospitals with emergency-room services treat anyone who presents themselves for care, including illegal aliens. The act does not say who is liable for the costs.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and sponsor of legislation to reimburse border hospitals for their mounting losses, said the influx of illegal aliens had "severely" affected Arizona's health care system and that increased demands would make matters worse.
Mr. Kyl said the federal government "has not been willing" to provide financial support to health care providers along the border to pay for the federally mandated treatment of illegal aliens.
"Some emergency rooms have shut down, and others will close because they simply cannot afford to stay open," he said. "Meanwhile, taxpaying American citizens are denied care or have to wait an inordinate time to receive emergency care.
"We have the opportunity to welcome thousands of legal visitors to our state every day who provide a boost to tourism, help us increase awareness of our two nations' cultures and contribute to our state's economy and we will continue to do so while addressing the issues that arise from those seeking to cross our border in violation of federal law," he said.
Mr. Kyl's reimbursement bill, which he plans to reintroduce, languished in committee, and the Bush administration showed little interest in it.
Illegal aliens, particularly in Arizona, have inundated hospitals along the border.
The Southeast Arizona Medical Center in Douglas is on the verge of bankruptcy because of uncompensated care to undocumented aliens; the Cochise County Health Department spends as much as 30 percent of its annual $9 million budget on illegal aliens; and the Copper Queen Hospital in Bisbee was hit for $200,000 in uncompensated services out of a net operating income of $300,000.
The University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., faces up to $10 million this year "in uncompensated care to foreign nationals," and the Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in the city lost $1 million treating illegal immigrants in the first quarter of fiscal 2002.
A recent study by the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health on the treatment of undocumented aliens said the "routine transfer" of patients by Mexican ambulances from Agua Prieta, Mexico, to Douglas remains a problem, adding that the drivers encountered "little resistance" at border crossings.
The committee said that contributing to the "already excessive cost of treating illegal immigrants" was the price of transporting by helicopter those patients in Douglas who need further treatment to medical facilities in Tucson and Phoenix. The panel said the cost ranged from $7,000 to $20,000 a trip.
"If rural hospitals in the area become financially strapped and are unable to pay for this type of transportation, helicopter services will be forced out of business, plummeting health care services in rural areas back to their 1980s status," it said.
A recent study by the U.S.-Mexico Border Counties Coalition said 77 hospitals along the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas face "a medical emergency."
The study said one in four dollars of uncompensated emergency medical costs for the Southwest border hospitals was attributable to undocumented migrants.
It calculated the losses at $79 million in California, $74 million in Texas, $31 million in Arizona and $6 million in New Mexico. It also said that emergency service providers incurred an additional $13 million in uncompensated costs.

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