A health care system that tries to deny care

February 22, 2008

I WORK in a clinic at a hospital that does breast surgery on cancer patients. Recently, we had an uproar in our clinic that exposed the injustice in the health care system and the readiness of hospital administrators to let patients die for the sake of profit.

A young, uninsured patient--a worker, wife and mother of three--came into our clinic, just diagnosed with breast cancer, to discuss her options with the surgeon. She would have been eligible for Charity Care or another program through the hospital, but she was an undocumented immigrant without a Social Security number and, therefore, was excluded from applying.

The billing department at my "nonprofit" hospital (which enjoyed $51 million in profits last year alone) came over in person to inform us that we were not to see the patient unless she paid cash upfront for the consultation--a cost of almost $1,000! They kept referring to her as an "illegal" and repeated that health care was a responsibility, not a right.

The whole thing reeked of racism and discrimination. My coworkers and I were absolutely outraged at being ordered to deny critical care to this patient when it is our job and duty to treat people regardless of their race, immigration status or ability to pay.

My clinic decided that we were going to see her anyway, regardless of what our bosses said.

After the patient saw the surgeon, who was also on our side, the social worker reamed out the billing department for being ignorant of the law, which says that cancer is considered a critical condition and must be treated immediately regardless of immigration status. It wasn't the patient who was breaking the law, but our own hospital! The young woman was fast-tracked to the Department of Social and Health Services and had surgery a week later.

It was a clear and, unfortunately, rare victory of health care workers against the bosses who want to deny care to save money. The victory sparked an entire day of discussion among my coworkers about why we need a national health insurance program that includes everyone in the U.S.

The real problem is not undocumented immigrants, but the fact that health care is for profit, not for human need. We need a movement of health care workers and activists to flip the twisted priorities of this sick health care system!
Anonymous, Seattle

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