Students want to be docs, not immigration refs

On Feb. 13, nearly 150 med students and professionals from Morehouse College, Mercer University, the Medical College of Georgia and Emory University stood outside the state Capitol, clutching posters that said "Don't drive away our future doctors" and "Don't play politics with health care."

The signs referred to Senate Bill 529, which was introduced four days earlier by state Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock. SB 529 essentially is a comprehensive crackdown on illegal immigrants that covers a range of proposals, from sanctions for employers who hire illegal workers to a broad denial of social services for illegal adults. It's a conglomeration of several of Rogers' previous bills, but with input from the state's only Latino senator, Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, who typically is Rogers' adversary on such issues.

Still, health care officials contend that the bill's proposals are much thornier than they might first appear.

"[This legislation] would make immigration officers out of health care professionals," says Daniel Blumenthal, chair of the Morehouse Department of Community Health and Preventative Medicine. "I don't find it acceptable or ethical to be told I can't treat an individual because he doesn't have proper papers."

The students' rally was among a number of protests that have targeted immigration reform before the state Legislature this session.

For instance, on Sun., Feb. 12, police put up barriers for protests by two groups: the Coalition for a New Georgia, an immigrant watchdog group protesting for comprehensive immigration reform, and, on the opposite side of the street, a competing protest by anti-immigration supporters led by Marietta activist D.A. King. In October, King made headlines for paying 14 homeless people $10 each to hold signs supporting the denial of social services to illegal immigrants.

The following day, the students' grassroots organization, Health Professionals for a Healthy Georgia, took up the immigration health care cause. The organization formed in October, after Emory medical student Kate Neuhausen and two other students attended a Hispanic Health Coalition of Georgia meeting. The group now includes more than 250 health professionals and students.

"The medical schools usually are very separate," Neuhausen says. "For all of them to be coming together shows the importance of this issue. We're sending the message that denying health care isn't the solution to Georgia's immigration problem."

Art Kellermann, chair of the Emory Department of Emergency Medicine, says Rogers' bill would prevent doctors from fulfilling their obligations as healers.

"Our ethics as doctors, as nurses, as health care professionals, demand that we care for everyone who seeks us at a time of need," Kellermann says.

He says the proposal would cripple emergency rooms, which under federal law are required to help illegal immigrants. That's because, instead of illegal immigrants being able to receive primary care to nip a condition in the bud, they often are forced to seek care in emergency rooms.

Yet Rogers says the state has limited resources, and people who are eligible to receive health care — legal residents — should be assisted first.

"I'm trying to be fair and balanced," Rogers says.

Emory medical student Jessica Manning says the group's efforts have paid off to some extent: Rogers exempted children's health care and prenatal care from the proposed crackdown.

But Jason Prystowsky, an Emory emergency doctor, says he wants all health care restrictions removed from the bill.

"When people come into the emergency room, I will not ask them, 'Are you a U.S. citizen?'" Prystowsky says. "I will ask them, 'Where do you hurt and how can I help you?'"

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