Sudanese Asylum Seeker Dies in Israel for Lack of Affordable Health Care

Man with rare respiratory syndrome fails to raise NIS 6,000 needed to buy an oxygen generator; migrants' status shouldn't bar them from getting health care, rights group says.

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A 27-year-old asylum seeker from South Sudan died at a Be’er Sheva hospital after failing to raise the NIS 6,000 needed to buy an oxygen generator that would have enabled his release from hospital and kept him away from possible infections, to which he was particularly susceptible.

As he was unable to receive continued medical treatment outside the Soroka Medical Center, the man was obliged to remain hospitalized for two months instead of two days. He eventually contracted an infection and died.

M., who lived in Arad, suffered from Kartagener syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the respiratory tract. M., who was hospitalized frequently, was admitted to the internal medicine ward at Soroka on August 18 due to his deteriorating condition, including weakness, a cough and shortness of breath. He was stabilized and the staff attempted to release him after a few days, but held off until it was clear he would receive medication and obtain an oxygen generator.

As an asylum seeker with no legal status in Israel, M. was cut off from the health-care system and was unable to join one of the health maintenance organizations. During his two-month stay at the hospital, social services sought a solution by appealing to nonprofit organizations and other aid agencies. Physicians for Human Rights managed to find medication for him, but no oxygen generator could be found. An attempt to borrow one from the Yad Sarah volunteer agency failed, since a bank account, deposit and credit card were required and M. had none of these. The only option was to buy one for NIS 6,000. Physicians for Human Rights were collecting funds, but M. died before that amount was raised.

Throughout his prolonged hospitalization, the staff expressed concerns that leaving him in the department in his sensitive condition exposed him to infectious agents, so obtaining the oxygen generator was urgent. Hospital officials say M.’s disease was terminal and that the staff went above and beyond to care for him.

“There is a direct link between the duration of hospitalization and exposure to infections in a hospital, so the goal is always to release patients with chronic diseases as soon as possible, for further treatment in their communities," a hospital spokesperson said. "However, without the generator the staff could not approve his release. Social workers at the hospital tried to obtain one from several organizations to no avail.”

After two months, M. was rushed to the intensive care unit in critical condition after contracting an infection that led to respiratory failure, from which he died.

Health Ministry aware of the case

Soroka has been treating Sudanese and Eritreans with no status as a matter of course in recent years: Some sustained injuries during their migration to Israel while others contracted diseases during incarceration. However, the number of patients has dwindled as the fence along the border with Egypt was completed. Between January and September 2013, 55 people without legal status were hospitalized at Soroka, and a 180 more were treated in the emergency room.

In M.’s case, the hospital appealed not only to voluntary organizations but also to the Health Ministry.

“There is a problem in the overall treatment of people without legal standing," the ministry said in response. "Currently they receive treatment in emergency rooms in hospitals, as well as at a dedicated clinic in south Tel Aviv. The Medical Administration at the ministry is trying to find creative solutions for different cases. The Sudanese patient was hospitalized for two months despite his lack of official status, with the understanding that he couldn’t be released and abandoned, given his serious condition. His case was reported and discussed ... at the Health Ministry. This was a very sick individual. It is problematic to release such a person into the community with no support services. Out of pity and humaneness, it was decided to leave him in the hospital. It should be noted that Soroka continued to give the appropriate care to a patient in his condition.”

According to Shahar Shoham, head of the division for migrants and people without legal status at Physicians for Human Rights, the case is further proof that migrants' status should not bar them from getting social benefits. “Every Israeli is insured with access to all services. There are migrants here, some with children, and they should also have such access. If M. belonged to an HMO, he would have gone home and received the generator, probably saving his life."

The law defining patients' rights guarantees treatment for all at emergency facilities, regardless of status or payment. “There are many cases where hospitals appeal to us," Shoham adds, "but patients are not released since they require further treatment. If they are released, they return quickly for lack of treatment. Each day at an emergency ward costs NIS 3,000. The solution is to allow them access to community services. There is no need for new clinics or separate systems, or for new legislation. The minister has the authority to apply the law to migrants."

A committee dealing with migrant workers met with Health Minister Yael German last June. She said that the state is obligated to help and that she would look into expanding their medical benefits. Shoham says that so far there has been no change.

There are currently 250,000 people without legal standing in Israel, Shoham says, 55,000 of whom are asylum seekers - mostly from Eritrea and Sudan - who cannot be expelled. A further 90,000 have overstayed their visa permits, while 70,000 were brought here as laborers. All these groups have limited or no access to any health service.

The Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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