Asylum Seeker's Surgery Ends With Confiscated Visa

Haaretz found that the hospital has a practice, which is against the law, of demanding that foreigners turn over documents to hospital management during their stay.

Mohammed A., a foreign worker who is in Israel legally as an asylum seeker, came to Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak for an operation. The surgery was successful, but his hospital stay resulted in another danger: The hospital had refused to return his visa until he paid his NIS 4,000 bill. The man could have been arrested and faced deportation had he been he found without the document.

Haaretz found that the hospital has a practice, which is against the law, of demanding that foreigners turn over documents to hospital management during their stay.

The visa was returned after queries to the hospital from the Hotline for Migrant Workers.

It is a criminal offense to hold a person's identity documents against his or her will, punishable by up to three years in prison. Mohammed could be arrested if he cannot produce his visa and would not have been able to receive further medical care without the document.

Mohammed came to the Bnei Brak hospital a month ago and remained there for eight days. He turned to the Hotline for Migrant Workers for help in arranging a payment schedule for his hospitalization. Emi Sa'ar, the hotline's director, last week wrote the hospital and demanded the visa be returned immediately. She also spoke to the hospital's billing department, which said they were looking into the matter. On Friday, after the hospital received a letter from the hotline's lawyer and a query from Haaretz, Mohammed went to the hospital.

"I told them I could not pay the bill, I haven't got a penny," and an hour later they returned the visa to me," he said.

Sa'ar said that "the hospital's conduct is scandalous, against the law and against the physicians' oath."

At Mayanei Hayeshua the practice is apparently not unusual. In January 2008, a migrant worker from Romania who was legally in Israel complained to a workers' rights group that the hospital had refused to return her passport until she paid her bill of NIS 15,000 for gall bladder surgery. She wound up owing the money after her medical insurance carrier refused to pay, arguing that surgery became necessary from a preexisting condition. After Physicians for Human Rights and Kav La'Oved (Worker's Hotline for the Protection of Worker's Rights ) intervened, her passport was returned - she had managed to raise money from friends to pay part of her debt and promised to find the rest.

In the case of the asylum seeker the Health Ministry's department of general medicine said it had checked with the hospital and found that "the patient did not undergo a regular release procedure. The hospital contacted the Hotline for Migrant Workers to hand over the patient's visa."

Mayanei Hayeshua's management said: "The patient came to Mayanei Hayeshua with a very severe intestinal problem and was immediately taken to the operating room, where doctors saved his life. According to security procedures at the hospital, all foreign workers/residents/refugees must deposit some identity document, for understandable reasons. The document is placed in a special safe in the hospital's admissions department. Mohammed was released from the hospital without any payment and/or pledge to pay for his care, with recommendations for continued medical treatment. He left the hospital without a proper release and because of difficulties of communication or because he forgot, he did not ask for his visa back. Neither Mayanei HaYeshua or any representative thereof did or would condition a person's release or treatment on the return of a document, on or visa."

The hospital's billing department said it was in touch with the Bnei Brak municipality, Mohammed's employer, and with the National Insurance Institute, to pay his hospital bill. The hospital also said: "We recommend that the concerned hotline staff be a little more precise in the important details and see to the continued care of [Mohammed A.] who according to our medical staff is in need of further treatment. We would expect a thank-you letter with a bouquet of flowers for our staff's devoted care for [Mohammed A.] and for saving his life."

Jack Khoury contributed to this report.