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Group of medical providers urges lawmakers to oppose a bill on immigration changes

Eighty health care workers write a letter to Legislature leaders in opposition of a measure that will mandate that hospitals ask patients whether they are in the country illegally.

A group of medical providers in Florida wants lawmakers to oppose a bill that will mandate some hospitals to ask patients whether they are in the country legally.

Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia of Springhill, the bill's sponsor, said: "We can’t touch illegal immigration enforcement, but what we can do is join with other states to take away the inducements and the incentives.”

The measure (SB 1718), which is awaiting a floor vote, would require hospitals that accept Medicaid to change their admission or registration forms. It would mean more than 320 Florida hospitals would need to include a question asking patients whether they're United States citizens, and whether they are lawfully in the country.

According to the bill, the form should inform patients that their answer does not affect patient care or result in a report to immigration authorities.

Ingoglia said he wants the state to determine how much it costs to provide care for people living in the country illegally. Supporters of his measure say people who don't have permanent legal status drain resources of hospitals that receive Medicaid.

But at a press conference this week organized by an equity-in-health care nonprofit, doctors and nurses opposed the bill. They said the measure will discourage people lacking permanent legal status from getting the care they need and urged the state to accept federal money to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, to help with medical costs instead.

“As a doctor, I've taken an oath to provide care for all patients, regardless of their background or their status," Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, a professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said at the event hosted by the nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute.

He said he worries about patients who do physical labor, such as agriculture workers or cleaners.

"I'm deeply concerned this bill is going to scare many undocumented patients from seeking care," he said.

"I truly believe every patient deserves access to the highest quality health care," Carrasquillo continued. "Health care is a basic human right, and making it harder for people to access care really goes ethically against what we as doctors support. It is not what the medical profession wants, so I urge our lawmakers to reject this harmful legislation."

Kevin Cho Tipton, a critical care nurse based in Miami, said a lot of patients in a hospital are facing the hardest moments of their lives. Having to ask them whether they're in the U.S. lawfully will add another challenge for providers and patients — and will discourage them from coming to a public hospital until their condition is much worse.

"The critically ill will be even more sick," Tipton said. "This will cost lives and it will cost all of us more in health care because like changing a spark plug in your car is cheaper than changing the whole engine, preventative care early when you're sick saves lives and saves money."

Carrasquillo, Tipton and 78 other medical providers signed a letter to the president of the Florida Senate and the speaker of the Florida House urging them to oppose the measures.

The bill and its companion measure in the House are awaiting floor votes which may happen as soon as this week.

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Verónica Zaragovia