Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tragic Choices at Grady Hospital (2) - Undocumented Patients with End Stage Renal Disease

As I've described in a previous post (here), Grady Hospital in Atlanta closed its dialysis clinic on October 3. Grady is a prototypical safety net hospital. It cares for a large number of uninsured patients - U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants - and has been on shaky financial footing for several years. The dialysis clinic was losing $3 million per year. On January 3 the three month extension of coverage Grady promised to patients who did not have other sources of dialysis support ended.

Kevin Sack of the New York Times, who has been doing a terrific job covering the Grady situation, recently wrote about Monica Chavarria, a 34 year old married mother of 14 and 8 year old boys, who had been on dialysis at Grady and who returned to her original home in the Mexican state of Jalisco when Grady closed the clinic:
On Dec. 22, she exhausted the 30 free dialysis sessions that Grady had provided at a gleaming private clinic in Guadalajara. On her doctor’s advice, she had been stretching out the going two times a week instead of the recommended three. Going without dialysis can prove fatal in as little as two weeks, and the twice-a-week regimen has at times left her weak.

...Everywhere, it seems, there are roadblocks to affordable care. The dialysis unit at Guadalajara’s public hospital, which offers heavily discounted prices to the uninsured, has a waiting list that extends for months. Ms. Chavarria is not eligible for the insurance plan known here as Social Security, which is limited to salaried workers. [And] the country’s five-year-old health program for the uninsured, Seguro Popular, does not cover end-stage renal disease.
Sack's article gave a link to an article in this month's American Journal of Kidney Diseases on care for undocumented immigrants with end stage renal disease (here). The authors estimate that there may be as many as 5,500 undocumented immigrants with ESRD in the U.S. If they were U.S. citizens their care would be paid for by Medicare. But the undocumented are not eligible for the Medicare program, and in most states are not eligible for Medicaid either. Safety net facilities like Grady that undertake treatment of undocumented patients are left holding the financial bag. Grady's no-win ethical dilemma was - risk going down the tubes altogether, and depriving a large population of its services, or put some of the dialysis patients at severe risk.

Kidney physicians have addressed the ethics of the situation Grady Hospital encountered in a thoughtful manner:
1. All health care professionals and health care systems have an ethical obligation to treat the sick.

2. The federal government has the ethical and fiscal responsibility to provide care for patients within the US borders.

3. The financial burden of this care should fall not only on states that have the highest number of uninsured citizens or noncitizens, but also should be a national responsibility.

4. Because of the unique nature of ESRD, all citizens and noncitizens with ESRD should be eligible for emergency federal funding if they do not have insurance or resources to pay for renal-related care.

5. Nephrologists should not be expected to act as agents for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and should not be expected to report undocumented noncitizens because of patient confidentiality and the fiduciary nature of the patient-physician relationship.
The kidney physicians are correct in placing the ultimate ethical (and fiscal) responsibility on the federal government. Immigration is a national concern. Safety net facilities like Grady should not be put in the "hot potato" situation of having lifetime fiscal responsibility for the patients it ministers to. If we play that game the safety net will implode.

Given the national backlash against the undocumented population it's hard to imagine that the U.S. will take on open-ended responsibility for the care of undocumented immigrants. This means that addressing the problem in a humane manner requires international cooperation. It's not clinically or ethically acceptable for the U.S. to "dump" undocumented patients back on the always poorer country the patient came from. If nephrologists and public health specialists from the U.S. and Mexico worked together to create a policy and care framework for patients like Monica Chavarria their care, and the services for other patients with ESRD in Mexico, would be improved.

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