Gotham Gazette

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Everyone Deserves the Chance for a Life-Saving Organ Transplant If They Need It

Emergency (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Imagine that one day you wake up with a slight cough. Thinking it is a cold or allergies, you take over-the-counter cough medicine, cough drops, and even at-home remedies. Five months later, nothing seems to be working and, at your wife’s urging, you finally go to the doctor. He runs several tests and a few weeks later you get a call to come back to the office. The doctor has devastating news: “Miguel, you have Stage 4 lung cancer and you need a lung transplant.”

But there’s hope - a transplant could save your life. You are only 36 and otherwise healthy; you have a son who just turned 7, a loving and happy marriage, and so much to live for.

But you are also undocumented, so unless you can come up with nearly a million dollars, you do not qualify to be on an organ donation list and you will not get this life-saving transplant. 

We’d like to think of New York as an inclusive beacon of hope and humanity, but we are failing one of our most vulnerable populations — our undocumented immigrants. We do not have a healthcare policy that covers every New Yorker.

The emergency Medicaid program covers urgent situations for undocumented immigrants, like a tracheotomy procedure or an emergency C-section, but does not cover organ transplants. Notably, however, undocumented people can donate organs. This means that although they can donate an organ to save someone else’s life, if their own life depends on a heart, lung, or kidney transplant, they are left to die.

Undocumented people should not be handed a death sentence when an organ fails simply because they lack a piece of paper and a social security number. 

Miguel’s story, while heartbreaking, happens more often than it should. According to LiveOn NY, about 6,000-9,000 undocumented people in the U.S. have kidney failure requiring a life-saving transplant. Yet, only 1% of all kidney transplant recipients are 

undocumented. This jarring statistic reflects only the plight of undocumented Americans in need of a kidney transplant. Thousands more need a lung, heart, liver, or other critical organ in order to survive, but are shut out because of their immigration status. 

We believe that a policy dictating who lives and who dies based on immigration status is inhumane and unethical. This is why we are introducing the Humanitarian Emergency Access for Required Transplants Act, or HEART Act, which will require the State to expand healthcare coverage to include medically necessary organ transplants, regardless of immigration status. This would ensure that someone like Miguel can be placed on the transplant list and be covered for surgery, post-medical care, and prescription drugs. 

Our legislation is not without precedent. In 2014, Illinois passed a similar bill into law that expanded public health coverage for emergency kidney transplants for undocumented immigrants. Although this is a step in the right direction, we must go further in New York and cover the care needed for the transplant of any organ where a person’s life is at risk, regardless of immigration status. Our undocumented neighbors must be recognized and treated like New Yorkers, and their survival should not depend on their immigration status.

Assemblymember Catalina Cruz represents parts of Queens. State Senator Nathalia Fernandez represents parts of the Bronx. On Twitter @CatalinaCruzNY & @Fernandez4NY.

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