IMMIGRANTS: Miami Health System Denies Civil Rights
Florida Legal Services and the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union are preparing to file a civil rights complaint with the federal Justice Department, charging that Florida's Miami-Dade County system of public health care charges higher fees to poor, undocumented immigrants, the Miami Herald reports. Immigrant advocates maintain that before offering immigrants reduced rates that other poor county residents receive, Miami-Dade Public Health Trust-run clinics and hospitals require foreign-born patients to produce "one or more of a series" of immigration papers that prove they are in the United States legally or that they have applied for legal status. Individuals who fail to produce such documents are treated as non-county residents and thus, are ineligible for free or discounted care. According to advocates, the clinic charges immigrants, who should qualify for free care, fees or cash deposits for non-emergency care and bills them at the highest rates, up to $75 for an office visit. Indigent patients who are county residents pay no fees for health care services. Because of their status, immigrant patients also pay fees for lab work or hospitalization that legal residents do not. Immigration advocates said that as a result, many immigrants leave the clinics for fear of being reported to immigration authorities or because they cannot pay.
The complaint contends that it is illegal for the trust "to provide free or discounted care to one group of county residents while denying the same benefit to another." Lawyers for the Florida ACLU chapter and Florida Legal Services maintain that illegal immigrants living and working in the county "pay sales taxes that support the trust's operations" and, therefore, should be eligible for free care. In addition, advocates contend that offering preventive care for immigrants reduces the need for future emergency care, which is more expensive than preventive care and law requires the county to provide. Legal services attorney Miriam Harmatz said that to deny "primary care or to throw up these barriers hurts [immigrants'] health and is a huge risk to public health ... The policy excludes undocumented immigrants who are living here, working here, paying taxes and, when they get sick, are classified as non-county residents and charged the highest fee." But the Miami-Dade County attorney's office said that the policy is not intended to discriminate, but rather used to check whether patients qualify for Medicaid. Although the attorney's office said that the trust is not legally required to check immigration documents, trust officials said their "written policy can be read to require immigration documentation to determine eligibility for discounted fees." Trust board member and specialist on immigration law Maria Dominguez said that "the policy was not intended" to require immigration documentation, adding the board needs to "fine tune" it (Viglucci, 8/13).