Sixty-nine-year-old Wladyslaw Haniszewski had lived in the U.S. for about 30 years. But when the New Jersey resident fell into a coma he awoke to find himself in his native country of Poland.
The New York Daily News reports that Haniszewski fell victim to a growing phenomenon in which uninsured immigrants are deported by U.S. hospitals that do not want to get stuck paying for their treatment.
“Imagine being carted around like a sack of potatoes," said Polish Consul General Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, who argues that Haniszewski was placed on a chartered flight while still unconscious, never giving his consent to being shipped to a hospital in a country he had not lived in for decades.
The practice of medical repatriation has reportedly become increasingly common. One immigration advocacy group told The Associated Press in April that it has documented at least 800 cases of individuals being deported from hospitals without consent over the past six years in at least 15 states. However, the actual number is believed to be much higher because of the significant number of cases that go unreported.
"It really is a Catch-22 for us," Dr. Mark Purtle, vice president of Medical Affairs for Iowa Health System, said at the time. "This is the area that the federal government, the state, everybody says we're not paying for the undocumented."
There is an ongoing debate over the legality and morality of medical repatriation. Under U.S. law, hospitals are required to gain patient consent, from either the individual directly or an immediate family member, before having the individual deported. The federal government is not directly involved in the cases and does not pay for the cost of deportation. In April, "Colbert Report" host Stephen Colbert weighed in on the controversy, saying sarcastically, "It's totally unregulated, so hospitals avoid all the red tape usually involved in shipping the unconscious."
Haniszewski has reportedly fallen on hard times in recent years. Friends tell the Daily News that he recently lost his apartment and job, and was forced to relocate to a shelter.
The Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick is defending its actions, saying it took the necessary precautions before placing Haniszewski on an outbound flight.
“The individual was informed regarding his discharge plan and care,” said hospital spokesman Peter Haigney. “As the hospital's understanding of the facts differs from the published reports, we are conducting a thorough review of the procedures and communications surrounding this gentleman's care.”
However, Junczyk-Ziomecka contests the theory that Haniszewski consented to the move or was even informed of the decision. After all, he was still in a coma when he arrived in Poland and even now is unable to verbally communicate with hospital staff. He’s also estranged from his two daughters, who live in Poland.
"He can smile from time to time, but he is unable to communicate," Junczyk-Ziomecka told the Daily News.
“It’s an incredibly disturbing case,” Lori Nessel, director of the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall University School of Law, told the Daily News. “This kind of action seems clearly illegal and also not ethical, but it’s hard to bring a legal action.”