Friday, August 14, 2009

Illegal immigrants face life-and-death decisions without health insurance

Trying to pay for organ transplants and follow-up medicine can be overwhelming
Immigrant health care
Liliana Cruz, 16, receives dialysis this month. An adult sister is willing to donate a kidney to her, but a hospital declined them because the sister's part of the surgery would not be subsidized. (Tribune photo by Alex Garcia / August 4, 2009)

As he pushes his cart around the Southwest Side selling steamed ears of corn, sliced cucumbers and other street food, Omar Castillo embodies a potential life-and-death issue that has become the third rail in the debate over health-care reform.

Peddling snacks -- doused with lime and chili powder and priced at $1.50 each -- is how Castillo, 19, is trying to pay for expensive medication he needs to stay healthy after receiving a kidney transplant last year.

Because he is in the U.S. illegally, he has no ready access to aid for such long-term medical expenses. To cover such needs for an estimated 6.8 million undocumented and uninsured immigrants in the country, some health-care advocates have proposed broadening the health-care proposals before Congress. But fierce opposition has kept the idea off the table.

As it is, Castillo received his transplant and a year of free medicine only as part of a hospital study at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center, after a Latino activist campaign and a call from the governor's office got him included. With the study over, his last free prescription is running out, and with it, his chances for a healthy life.

"We don't know what we'll do when the medicine is gone," said Castillo, holding two nearly empty bottles of pills he takes to ward off an organ rejection.

Immigration activists say it is "immoral" for hospitals and doctors, as well as a nation, to deny health care to the seriously ill, no matter their legal status. But proponents of tougher Immigration enforcement -- and others fighting to contain runaway health-care costs -- fear that providing such services would only encourage more undocumented immigrants to cross the border.,0,3342811.story?page=1

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