A Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) pediatrician has taken additional steps to advocate on behalf of her Partners HealthCare patients by testifying in Washington about a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) policy change that could have a profound detrimental impact for many critically ill children.
The testimony, delivered on September 11, 2019, by MGH Chelsea’s Fiona Danaher, MD, to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, notes that the potential termination of the medical deferred action program could have catastrophic results for critically ill children. The program provides children from immigrant families with the opportunity to preserve family unity while remaining in the United States for medical treatment. In August, the undocumented parents of critically ill children began receiving letters from USCIS informing them that their requests to stay in the US for medical care were denied, without notice or explanation. The children, who suffer from serious illnesses such as cancer and cystic fibrosis, were given 33 days to complete treatment and leave the country.
Approximately 20 of these patients and their families came to the attention of Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who reached out to MGH to identify physicians to testify on what the potential policy change would mean to their patients. “It’s simple: Sick kids need access to medical care,” says Dr. Danaher. “I was honored to testify alongside and in support of several incredibly brave patients, who had the daunting task not only of fighting for their own lives, but of speaking for all the patients too young or too sick to speak for themselves.”
Dr. Danaher shared real-life examples of the children at MGH who have benefited from the program, including a young child with a rare genetic disorder that causes seizures and developmental challenges. After the family was told that nothing could be done for the child in their home country, they traveled to one of the only clinics devoted to the disorder, at MGH, with life-changing results. “None of this would have been possible without the medical deferred action program,” explained Dr. Danaher in her testimony. “Now the child’s status is due for renewal at a time when the program may arbitrarily end, jeopardizing much hard-won progress.”
The efforts of Dr. Danaher, alongside the American Academy of Pediatrics and a large contingent of Boston physicians, may have moved the needle: USCIS has agreed to reinstate a review of these cases. Still, cautions Dr. Danaher, vigilance is needed to ensure future reviews apply the fair standards used previously. “It will be up to patients, doctors, and attorneys working together to keep the pressure up, and to bring to light any inappropriately denied applications,” she says. “As physicians, we have an obligation to push back on policies that are detrimental to our patients.”