SA policies on medical treatment for aliens again face court scrutiny

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DialysisAn  Ethiopian asylum seeker who was after three months of treatment denied dialysis  at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg because she lacks the “appropriate” documentation, has again placed the policies of the SA Department of Health of foreign nationals under judicial scrutiny.

According to a Sunday Times report, doctors told Alem Bazabe Ereselo last month. “You are not a South African citizen and you do not possess verified documents pertaining to refugee status or permanent citizenship awarded,” Ereselo said the hospital administration told her.

She turned to the courts for help. But, the report says, on Friday last week, her urgent application to compel the hospital to provide treatment was removed from the urgent roll in the High Court (Johannesburg) to allow the Health Department and the hospital to finalise their response papers. The lawyer representing Ereselo, Robin Lenahan of Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), said this was only approved on the understanding that Ereselo will continue to receive treatment until – at the very least – the finalisation of the case.

The report says this has brought some comfort to Ereselo, who visited the hospital for her treatment on 8 May – election day. “The sickness I have is a lifelong illness. I didn’t know what to do when they told me I won’t get treatment. I felt helpless,” she said. “But I’m very happy now. I hope I can keep going.”

The report says Ereselo has been waiting nine years for a hearing at the Refugee Appeals Board to cement her status as a refugee in South Africa, having fled her home country due to being labelled politically dissident by the regime in Ethiopia at the time.

She lives in Yeoville in Johannesburg. Ereselo said that on 24 April the hospital told her she needed to return to Ethiopia for treatment, despite the fact that she is seeking political asylum in South Africa. It was then that she approached LHR.

Lenahan said Ereselo was admitted to Helen Joseph in January for kidney failure, and was placed on tri-weekly acute haemodialysis treatment. “Doctors at Helen Joseph Hospital have confirmed both to Ereselo and Lawyers for Human Rights that if her treatment is discontinued, she will die,” Lenahan is quoted in the report as saying. But in late April Ereselo was given notice that her treatment would be terminated on 1 May.

“Through discussions with Helen Joseph Hospital, it appears that the reason for terminating the haemodialysis treatment is because of a policy of the national department of health,” Lenahan says in court papers. “Pursuant to this policy, it appears that the only reason for the termination of [Ereselo’s] treatment is her immigration status as an asylum seeker. In other words, it is only a policy that stands between the applicant and life-saving treatment.”

Lenahan said in the report that Ereselo’s matter is just the first part of a move to review South Africa’s policy on asylum seekers’ access to medical treatment. “LHR will argue that the policy, which prevents an asylum seeker from continuing to receive chronic renal treatment, is unconstitutional. This argument will include submissions concerning patients who are asylum seekers who have fled persecution in their country of origin.”

Ereselo’s friend, Hanna Adbeo, said when they heard the news from the hospital, they begged and pleaded with the doctors to give her one more week of treatment. “We were told Ereselo needs to go back to Ethiopia for help. I explained that she was an asylum seeker and they didn’t care. They just removed her (treatment) tube and said to go,” said Adbeo.

The report says the Gauteng Health Department was approached for comment on the proceedings against the hospital, and about its policy on medical treatment for asylum seekers. The department’s Vuyo Sabani said it could not comment because the matter was sub judice.

The report says in March, itwas revealed that a circular had been distributed by Gauteng Health stating that foreign patients should be turned away – even in cases of emergency – unless they pay in full for treatment. However, refugees would apparently be exempt, subject to a “means test”.

The report says the national Health Department distanced itself from the circular at the time, insisting the directive had been created by a junior official and was not approved.

Sunday Times report

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