U.S. health care crisis fuels Pinoys’ American dream

September 2, 2002

By Ted A. Regencia

CHICAGO — Lisa, 25, is a computer engineer from Mindanao. Desperate for a job, she left the Philippines for the United States in 1999. Three years of hard work and loneliness have paid off. She now drives her own car and leads a comfortable life in a Chicago suburb.

DJ, Lisa’s cousin, is also an engineer. Lured by the promise of pay in greenbacks, he gave up his 10-year-old job in Makati to pursue his American dream. As a reward, he was able to finance the repair of his parents’ house in their provincial hometown, send money to his relatives and save enough for his and his wife’s first born that is due in November.

Lisa and DJ are making money not because they are engineers. Both are caregivers, a job they never imagined doing while they were still in college back in the Philippines.

“I was confronted with reality. There was no engineering job waiting for me in the United States, so I grabbed at every opportunity that was available,” Lisa said. “The chance to work as a caregiver came, so I grabbed it.”
A crisis in the American health care system opened a window of opportunity to many Filipinos.

Over the past 10 years, the United States has been facing a shortage of trained professionals who can take care of the sick and the elderly. At least 125,000 caregivers are needed all over the United States. So serious is the situation that the shortage of personnel has been partly blamed for 24 percent of hospital errors that kill or injure patients.

Officials warned that if the current trend continues, the U.S. would face a shortage of half a million nurses by 2020. With an estimated 16 million aging Americans needing long-term care by 2030, the problem is expected to escalate.

American nurses have shied away from the health care profession despite the high pay. Enrollment in U.S. nursing schools dropped by 13 % between 1995 and 1999, reports said.

The situation is not getting any better. In California, for instance, around 20 % of more than 200,000 nursing jobs are vacant. The states of Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas are also facing the same problem.

Underscoring the urgency to solve the shortage, U.S. President George W. Bush signed a bill giving incentives to Americans who train and work as caregivers.

Due to the shortage, health care industry executives are forced to adopt “unconventional” recruitment methods. People who do not have the experience but who are willing to do the “dirty job” have been recruited from various countries, especially the Philippines. People like Lisa and DJ.

Health care is a multibillion-dollar American industry. In 1995 alone, spending for long-term care for the elderly reached almost $91 billion, according to a 1998 U.S. Senate report.

A regular caregiver, who takes care of one patient either in a hospital or at home, can earn at least $3,000 a month. The compensation is hard to refuse. A lot of Filipinos — teachers and bankers, among them — opted to change gears and work as caregivers in the past years.

“Had I remained a seaman, I would have been one rank away from becoming a captain,” said Jun, who used to work in an oceangoing freighter. “But look at me now, I am steering the wheelchair of an old American.”

Filipino nurses are lucky. Hospitals and nursing homes across the U.S. are scurrying to get Filipinos. Competing hospitals even resort to pirating Filipino nurses, offering them as much as $15,000 as sign-in bonus, housing and even subsidized education for their children.

Recruiters travel to the Philippines to sign up nurses and nursing aids. These day, Manila dailies are full of advertisements promising perks for Filipino nurses who decide to work in the U.S. Ironically, the recruitment emptied many local hospitals, shifting the shortage of nurses to the Philippines.

“They want to get us because Filipinos are really dependable and hard-working,” said Joy, a certified nurse from Iligan City who is waiting for her papers that would certify her as an immigrant.

“Filipinos are sought after because of their fluency in English and their standard of education. We are also very compassionate to our patients and we don’t complain a lot,” Joy said.

Lisa, DJ and Jun, however, are not nurses. But even as they are not capable of carrying out various medical procedures, they provide competent help by giving patients a bath, feeding them and changing their diapers.

When patients require someone to stay with them at home, caregivers are assigned because there are not enough nurses. People like Lisa, DJ and Jun are required to undergo a four- to five-week training before they can become certified nursing assistants.

“Here in the U.S., if you only work hard you would earn enough,” Lisa said. However, she admitted that is not easy to work as a caregiver with the verbal, and even physical, abuses she suffers from patients.

“It’s really hard and sometimes it is degrading,” she said. “If I already earn enough, I am definitely going home. Even if I’d be eating camote and bagoong, at least I will be home with my family.”

For now, however, Lisa is staying in the United States, “working my butt off” for more money to be sent home to the Philippines.

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