- - Monday, April 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Late last month, a little-known state agency in New York took an implausible step toward licensing illegal immigrants to do everything from teach to practice medicine.

The New York State Board of Regents said that it will begin allowing illegal immigrants to apply for licenses to do more than 50 jobs regulated by the state. These include nurses, doctors, dentists and pharmacists.

The board is taking public comments on its decision now. It intends to finalize the new rules in May.

Using state licenses to reward people in the country illegally is an affront to the rule of law in America.

It is contrary to the principles of many of the professions involved. Doctors, for example, are expected to be model members of their communities and to obey the law.

In New York, being convicted of a crime can be grounds to have a medical license revoked. How can the state justify giving a medical license to someone who is already known to have broken the law?

When I became a doctor, I took the Hippocratic Oath. This oath reminds doctors that we are members of society. How can doctors properly fulfill their societal obligations if they entered that society illegally?

Doctors and dentists are entrusted to prescribe powerful medicines, including opioid painkillers. The use of these highly addictive drugs has become widespread.

Drugs now kill more Americans than do car crashes. Between 1999 and 2013, sales of prescription painkillers in the United States quadrupled. Overdose deaths from these drugs went up at the same pace. There’s been a dramatic shift from the appropriate use to abuse of these medications.

Even when prescribed appropriately, these medications can do significant harm. Some people will become addicted to these painkillers. They may try to feed their addiction by buying opioids illegally or turning to heroin.

These drugs are not exclusively a problem in big cities. The fastest-growing demographic for addiction is white, middle-age, middle-class, suburban women.

The Senate recently passed major, bipartisan legislation to deal with America’s drug-abuse crisis. New York is taking the opposite approach, and will only contribute to the problem.

States across the country are struggling to learn more about how opioids are being dispensed and by whom. It’s irresponsible for New York bureaucrats to allow people who are not in the country legally to have prescription pads.

This would not be the first time government policies have inadvertently contributed to the problem. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services make payments to hospitals based partly on how well the hospital scores on surveys filled out by its patients.

These surveys ask people things like: “During this hospital stay, how often was your pain well-controlled?” and “How often did the hospital staff do everything they could to help you with your pain?”

It’s easy to see how doctors might feel pressure to prescribe more and stronger opioid pain relievers to make sure their hospital doesn’t get financially penalized. The pressure might even be greater on physicians who are in this country illegally.

Granting a medical, dental, pharmacy or nursing license to illegal immigrants is also fundamentally unfair to everyone here in America who followed the rules.

The path is not always easy for people who want to come to this country legally. The rules can be difficult and time-consuming to follow.

Our government owes it to all citizens and legal residents to preserve the value of that effort. It also owes every American the peace of mind that the health care professional treating his or her sick child is who he claims to be and is in this country legally.

I recently offered an amendment to the Senate-passed opioid bill requiring the Drug Enforcement Administration to verify that people registering to prescribe or handle controlled substances — such as opioid pain medications — are legally present in the country. I plan to introduce a bill that does the same.

At the very least, communities should know that those entrusted to prescribe and dispense potent, habit-forming medications have permission to actually work and live here.

The New York State Board of Regents is ignoring a legitimate public safety concern. The public deserves more protection than the state of New York is willing to provide. When New York will not protect its citizens, Congress must.

John Barrasso, a physician, is a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from Wyoming.

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