Should Cuban-trained doctors be banned from practicing medicine in Florida?

01/30/13 Janelle Irwin
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Two state lawmakers from South Florida want doctors who got their degrees in Cuba banned from practicing medicine in the state. But some people think they’re just catering to people who oppose Cuba’s leadership. Gail Walker is the co-executive director for an inter-religious group that helps students enroll in a medical school scholarship program.

“I would argue that the representative is trying to gain political points perhaps because he’s opposed to improved relations with Cuba.”

The bill is being introduced by Representative Manny Diaz, Jr. and Senator Rene Garcia, both Republicans serving the Miami area. Their legislation would prohibit the Department of Health from issuing medical licenses to American graduates of the Cuban program. Patrick Manteiga, who has traveled to Cuba five times and toured the country’s free medical school, said the legislation would contradict a common federal practice.

“Currently we have a policy to try to undermine the Cubans’ diplomacy abroad by recruiting doctors that they have in Venezuela and other countries to go to the embassy and we will bring them into American and put them on a pathway here and of course work on getting their medical degrees and their practice as a doctor accepted here in America.”

Manteiga, said the exemption for Cubans is a contradiction.

“When you see this bill that comes along in Florida saying that if you’re an American educated in Cuba and earning a medical degree there that we’re not going to accept it in Florida it becomes bazaar. We’re going to accept a Cuban’s medical degree from Cuba, but we’re not going to accept an American’s medical degree from Cuba. You know you just wonder, what are we thinking about down in Miami? The water must be tainted.”

The 6-year program was started in 2000 by former president of Cuba, Fidel Castro.
Diaz and Garcia did not respond to multiple interview requests. But in a press release last week, Diaz wrote, “U.S students who turn a blind eye to basic human and civil rights abuses in Cuba do not possess the moral clarity to serve patients in Florida.” He also called the program a medical apartheid system. But Walker, the head of the group who helps students enroll in the program, called that a misstatement.

“The students who study at ELAM, receive that training and then prepare to return here and to help the disenfranchised is something that should be lifted up and applauded.”

According to Walker, the Latin American School of Medicine, or ELAM where the scholarship program is based has churned out 88 American doctors over the past decade with another 120 currently enrolled. Walker said those students receive a comparable medical education to American-trained students and in some cases are even better equipped to serve public health programs.

“Their health care structure is one of which, it’s not really pushing people to just go to the ER if they have some kind of medical problem, but there is actually a tiered system in which there are physicians – locally based – that people can visit with and the doctors will know the history of a particular patient throughout, sort of, the cycle of their life.”

She added the students are also required to prove their skills before being licensed to practice medicine in the state.

“They’re required to take certain step examination to ensure that the do have the knowledge that all physicians that practice in the U.S. have. So, there are a series of examinations that they’re required to take and they do that and have done that with great success.”

If passed by both branches of the legislature and signed by Governor Rick Scott, the bill would take effect this summer. A spokesperson for the Florida Board of Medicine did not respond to interview requests.

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