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Georgia Immigration Law Trips Up Doctors And Nurses

Nov 12, 2012
Originally published on November 13, 2012 7:39 am

Hundreds of health care workers in Georgia are losing their licenses to practice because of a problem created by a new immigration law in the state.

The law requires everyone — no matter where they were born — to prove their citizenship or legal residency to renew their professional licenses.

With too few state workers to process the extra paperwork, licenses for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals are expiring.

Lisa Durden with the secretary of state's office says renewing a license used to be a straightforward process and most applications whizzed through. Now, they crawl.

Enactment of the law coincided with budget cuts that reduced the office staff by 40 percent.

Kelly Farr, Georgia's deputy secretary of state, says 600 nurses alone have fallen through the cracks. "There's nothing more frustrating than getting that call from the desperate nurse, knowing ... she's being slowed down because we literally don't have enough people to click the approve button," Farr said.

While the secretary of state handles licensing of nurses, pharmacists, and veterinarians, Georgia's medical board is in charge of doctors, physician assistants and even acupuncturists. It's the same story there.

Director LaSharn Hughes says she sent 41,000 letters of notification out on a recent Thursday. "And by Monday, we'd burned up a fax machine," Hughes said. "We didn't have the staff. We didn't have the equipment."

Phones go unanswered. Paperwork piles up. And processing delays, coupled with confusion over the new rules, mean lots of expired licenses.

Hughes estimates about 1,300 doctors and other medical practitioners have lost their legal ability to work. Some didn't submit the required paperwork. Others are stuck in the backlog of applications that haven't been processed yet.

Donald Palmisano Jr. executive director of the Medical Association of Georgia, says the law fixes a problem that never existed — at least not among doctors. "We're not aware of any undocumented immigrants that are physicians," Palmisano said.

Even D.A. King, an outspoken activist and critic of illegal immigration who helped write the law, agrees. King says the law protects Georgia jobs, but even he believes some parts of the legislation need fixing. A bill that addressed some of the law's shortcomings died in the last legislative session.

"I am not only outraged, but sincerely disappointed and puzzled that our repair legislation was not allowed a vote," King says.

Legislative sponsors of the law didn't respond to interview requests. Neither did Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.

For now, state licensing offices will keep plowing through the mail containing copies of passports and birth certificates, then checking them against a list of acceptable documents.

But that's where the vetting ends, confirms Kelly Farr and Lisa Durden of the secretary of state's office. The law says nothing about making sure the documents are genuine. "We really don't have a way to do that," says Durden.

State officials say the new document requirements haven't uncovered any undocumented immigrants.

Instead, officials say they hope the process itself may discourage people in the country illegally from trying to get licenses in the first place.

This story is part of a partnership with NPR, WABE, and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2013 WABE-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wabe.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A new immigration law in Georgia is meant to make it harder for undocumented workers to stay in the state. But it's taking a surprising toll on Georgia's health care system. Renewing a professional license used to be simple. Now, everyone, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists, must prove citizenship or legal residency.

As Jim Burress reports from member station WABE in Atlanta, a growing number of U.S. citizens and foreign-born health care workers are losing their licenses.

JIM BURRESS, BYLINE: Here in the basement of the state's license processing office, four employees sit around the table, they open endless stacks of mail, remove staples and push documents through an antiquated timestamp machine. Lisa Durden is managing all of this.

LISA DURDEN: Let's say a transcript, test scores, whatever it is, if we get all of that information on the front end then we can issue the license and, you know, that's a done deal.

BURRESS: Until the new proof of citizenship provision took affect this year, most applications whizzed through. Now, they crawl. Enactment of the law coincided with budget cuts that reduced the office staff by 40 percent. Kelly Farr is Georgia's deputy secretary of state. He says some 600 nurses alone have fallen through the cracks.

KELLY FARR: There's nothing more frustrating than getting that call from the desperate nurse, knowing that she's being slowed down because we literally don't have enough people to click the approve button.

BURRESS: While the secretary of state handles nurses, pharmacists, and veterinarians, Georgia's medical board is in charge of doctors, physician assistants, even acupuncturists. Board director LaSharn Hughes says she sent 41,000 letters of notification on a Thursday.

LASHARN HUGHES: And by Monday, we'd burned up a fax machine that we have. We did not have the staff. We didn't have the equipment.

BURRESS: Phones went unanswered. Paperwork piled up. And processing delays, coupled with confusion over the new rules meant lots of expired licenses. Hughes estimates about 1,300 doctors and other medical practitioners have lost their legal ability to work. Donald Palmisano, Jr. is director of the Medical Association of Georgia. He says the law fixes a problem that never existed, at least not among doctors.

DONALD PALMISANO, JR.: We're not aware of any undocumented immigrants that are physicians.

BURRESS: And that's what frustrates Dr. Jorge Simmonds-Diaz, a Columbian-born physician who's been here for decades. He remembers years ago having to submit a high school transcript in English just to get his license. That makes more sense to him than the new law.

DR. JORGE SIMMONDS-DIAZ: To have 1,300 doctors not working because of that paper is ridiculous.

BURRESS: D.A. King agrees. The outspoken critic on illegal immigration helped write the law, which he says protects Georgia jobs, but even King believes some parts need fixing.

D.A. KING: I am not only outraged, but sincerely disappointed and puzzled that our repair legislation was not allowed a vote.

BURRESS: A bill that addressed some of the shortcomings died in the last legislative session. Legislative sponsors of the law didn't respond to interview requests. Neither did Georgia Governor Nathan Deal. So for now, that means state licensing offices will continue opening mail full of copies of passports and birth certificates, then checking them against a list of acceptable documents. But that's where the process ends, confirms Kelly Farr and Lisa Durden of the secretary of state's office. The law says nothing about making sure the documents are genuine.

FARR: You know, you're verifying that it meets the list, but you don't verify the accuracy of what's submitted.

DURDEN: We really don't have a way to do that.

FARR: Yeah, there's no way to do it.

BURRESS: State officials say the new document requirements haven't uncovered a single illegal immigrants. Instead, officials hope the process itself is enough to discourage them from trying to get a license in the first place. For NPR News, I'm Jim Burress in Atlanta.

CORNISH: That story was produced in partnership with WABE, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.