The unproven, unprovable, but persistent myth that undocumented immigrants are a vast financial burden on the U.S. taxpayer is now extending to the unlikely field of organ transplants.
The latest furor began when about 40 people, many undocumented, picketed a Chicago hospital in late summer demanding the government finance organ transplants for illegal immigrants, as it often does for others. Some were on a hunger strike, promising to live on water and Gatorade until they are placed on the waiting list for organs such as kidneys and livers.
So far, this demonstration has not been duplicated in California. But the issue of transplants for the undocumented arrived here early last year with the case of Jesus Navarro, who did not receive a kidney transplant that was all set to go to him because at the last moment, doctors at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center learned his immigration status.
Navarro eventually got a transplant, but it was not paid for with government funds. That didn’t remove the controversy, though.
“Why should an American citizen lose out on a transplant to someone in the country illegally?” asked the conservative blog Natural News, speaking for many.
One response might be that contrary to urban legend, undocumented immigrants donate a lot more organs for transplant than they will ever use as long as they can’t legally enter programs like Medicare and Medi-Cal, the California form of Medicaid. Medicare covers all eligible patients in kidney failure starting shortly after they begin dialysis treatments.
Asked the other day what the effect on organ donation might be if it became widely known that unauthorized immigrants can be wait-listed for organs and eventually receive them if financially qualified, the head of California’s largest organ procurement organization took a different tack.
“I worry far more about any group saying ‘If we can’t get transplants, why should we ever donate,’” said Thomas Mone, chief executive of Los Angeles-based OneLegacy, which arranges distribution of organs donated by the families of accident victims and others who die, but have reusable hearts, kidneys, livers, lungs, corneas and other tissues.
“We certainly don’t ask any prospective donors their immigration status when we’re asking them to donate,” he said. “It’s not pertinent medically and it could scare them off quickly. But we know about 10 percent of the population here is undocumented. And we know about 51 percent of our donors are Latino. So we estimate that about 50 of our approximately 450 donated organs each year come from the undocumented. We know for sure that 65 percent of Latino families who are asked to donate the organs of a deceased relative actually do it.”
So the undocumented almost certainly account for well over 10 percent of donations. Meanwhile, an American Medical Association report found that from 1988 to 2007, non-resident aliens — including illegal immigrants — received far less than 1 percent of all transplants nationally.
Mone estimates that less than 1 percent of transplants here go to non-resident aliens.” If illegal immigrants give far more than they’ve ever received, who’s a burden to whom?
Financial questions have long affected prospective organ recipients, along with health tests and a psychiatric exam, aiming to establish that recipients would likely observe the drug regimen needed to keep a transplant going. “The financial test is the most significant hurdle for undocumented immigrants to be listed for transplant,” Mone reported.
Yes, Medi-Cal allows coverage for some U.S.-born children of unauthorized residents, but how would most of their families pay the large monthly cost of drugs needed to keep transplants going?
Navarro got his transplant last year only after a cash donor stepped forward. It could be argued that as someone who lived in this country 16 years before his kidneys failed — 14 working for a Berkeley steel foundry — had contributed enough to society to merit government insurance coverage. But it didn’t work that way for him.
The bottom line: As in other areas, the contributions of the undocumented in the transplant realm generally go unnoticed — which doesn’t make them any less real, especially if you happen to need one of their organs in this era of long waits and big shortfalls.
Elias is the author of “The Burzynski Breakthrough,” available in a soft-cover fourth edition. His email address is tdelias@aol.