There was little question the healthcare community was destined to become entangled in heated political issues once Donald Trump began his residency in the White House. The abolishment of the Affordable Care Act has long been Republican dogma, and candidate Trump returned to attacks on so-called “Obamacare” repeatedly during his barnstorming campaign for the presidency. What’s more surprising is the way medical professionals are suddenly snarled into the most heated discussions around immigration and refugee resettlement.
Now Cleveland Clinic, one of the country’s most renowned healthcare institutions, might be the most visible representative of the healthcare community in the ongoing debate whether they like it or not.
Following the Trump administration’s executive order effectively banning citizens of seven countries (all with majority Muslim populations) from entering the United States, stories of personal hardship faced by travelers proliferated. Healthcare professionals who were already practicing in the U.S. were among the thousands who were detained and turned away.
At least three Cleveland Clinic doctors faced difficulty returning from overseas trips in the chaotic, confusing hours immediately after the executive order was signed. One of them, Suha Abushamma, MD, has become a central figure for those opposed to the travel ban, in part because she has still been unable to reenter the United States, even though a recent ruling from Federal Judge James Robart has halted enforcement of the executive action for the time being.
Abushamma cut short a planned three-week vacation visiting family and traveling in the Middle East, returning when she got word from friends about speculative news reports on the pending executive order. According to a ProPublica story, the document was signed shortly after Abushamma’s flight from Saudi Arabia took off. By the time her plane touched down in New York City, the prohibition was in place.
Abushamma’s passport is from Sudan, one of the seven countries named in the executive order. She also arrived with her valid H-1B visa in hand (she says she made a point of renewing it at a U.S. Embassy before returning), but that wasn’t enough to get her through Customs.
According to Abushamma, she was detained for 10 hours before being informed that she would be required to fly back to Saudi Arabia. In addition, Abushamma says a U.S. Customs and Immigration officer told her that if she didn’t withdraw her visa it would likely result in her being prohibited from reentering the U.S. for five years. Given that choice, she opted to withdraw her visa, leaving her currently unable to return to the country, no matter what stays and blocks are issued against the executive order that barred her way in the first place. Lawyers working on her behalf (on a pro bono basis) are suing the government, seeking to get the visa instated.
Cleveland Clinic is also in the thick of it because of the widespread perception that the institution’s leadership is chummy with Trump. Delos Marshall “Toby” Cosgrove, MD, president and chief executive officer of Cleveland Clinic, sits on a White House business advisory council and was reportedly considered to serve in a cabinet-level position heading the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Cosgrove is directly addressed in an open letter calling on the Cleveland Clinic to publicly condemn the immigration ban and relocate a black tie fundraiser set to take place at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida at the end of February. As of Tuesday morning, the letter has been signed by over 1,500 healthcare professionals.
The letter calls specific attention to Abushamma’s plight and lists other actions of the Trump administration — such as weakening the Affordable Care Act and fast-tracking construction of controversial pipeline projects — that “directly harm human health and well-being in the United States and abroad.”
Thus far, the Cleveland Clinic has largely stuck with generalities in response.
“Recent immigration action taken by the White House has caused a great deal of uncertainty and has impacted some of our employees who are traveling overseas,” they said in a statement. “We deeply care about all of our employees and are fully committed to the safe return of those who have been affected by this action.”
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