- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

Federal health officials are denying a request by D.C. hospitals to reallocate funds from Maryland and Virginia to D.C. emergency rooms to help pay for treatment of illegal aliens from neighboring states.

“We can’t do that,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Mary Kahn said yesterday. “It’s not going to happen.”

The D.C. Hospital Association last month asked the federal agency to take funds allotted to Maryland and Virginia hospitals to pay for illegal aliens from those states who receive emergency-room treatment in the District.

The request came as federal officials make last-minute preparations for inaugurating a $1 billion program to reimburse hospitals for emergency care to illegal aliens.

Starting next month, hospitals nationwide will be eligible to receive $250 million per year over four years if they document the immigration status of patients.

“Basically, the intent of Congress was to reimburse hospitals for the tremendous expenses of uncompensated care they provide to [illegal] aliens,” Ms. Kahn said.

“It’s not meant to act as a dragnet to look for [illegal] aliens,” she said.

However, she said, legislation creating the program won’t allow federal officials to take funds from one state and give them to another state, as D.C. hospitals are proposing.

“There is a stringent formula in place,” she said.

Hospital officials in the D.C. region and nationwide are uneasy at the prospect of asking patients their immigration status.

“Hospitals provide care, we’re not expected to be police,” said John A. Marzano, spokesman for MedStar Health, which owns Georgetown University Hospital, National Rehabilitation Hospital and Washington Hospital Center in the District.

Last month, the D.C. Hospital Association sent a letter to federal officials citing a host of concerns about the new program, including whether hospital workers should seek information about a patient’s immigration status.

“Hospital workers should not be put into the position of serving as immigration police,” wrote Robert Malson, president of the D.C. Hospital Association. “We have no doubt that this role will prevent undocumented aliens from seeking medical assistance.”

Mr. Malson also said his association wants unused federal funds allotted to some states to be sent to states that spend all their money. Under current guidelines, the funds would be returned to the federal government’s general treasury.

Ultimately, hospitals will have to make their own decision on whether to take part in the program, said David Allen, spokesman for the American Hospital Association.

“Each hospital will have to decide on their own whether the money they’ll receive is worth the potential community health risk,” Mr. Allen said.

Questions that patients would be asked include: “Are you a United States’ citizen?” “Are you a lawful permanent resident, an alien with a valid and current employment authorization card or other qualified alien?” and “Are you in the United States on a non-immigrant visa?”

“Our thoughts and concerns are that nurses and doctors are caregivers, not cops acting as border patrol agents. Requiring a hospital to ask about this could deter a patient from seeking care,” Mr. Allen said.

Under the federal program, D.C. hospitals are slated to split $167,000, while Maryland hospitals will receive $1.3 million and Virginia will get $2.4 million.

Ms. Kahn said funding levels depend on the estimated number of illegal aliens living in each state. There are 7,000 illegal aliens in the District, 56,000 in Maryland and 110,000 in Virginia, according to federal estimates.

Despite concerns about the program, hospital officials say they understand why the federal government wants emergency-room workers to get proof that they treated illegal immigrants.

“The government wants accountability, to make sure that these dollars are going to the programs and the people where they’re supposed to go,” Mr. Allen said. “We understand that.”

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