The only thing the patient forgot was his passport; then again, who brings a passport to the doctor’s office anyway? Last spring, Chaudhry Yousaf, a Pakistani-born citizen of the U.S., took his 21-year-old son, Murtaza, who is mentally disabled, into the Astoria offices of Dr. Natwarlal Chowlera for severe coughing and breathing problems. In the waiting room, the receptionist made an unusual request of the father-his passport. Without it, Yousaf claims, his son was denied treatment.
In January, father and son, with the help of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, filed a civil discrimination lawsuit in federal court against Chowlera, seeking $200,000 in punitive damages, plus $50,000 more in compensation. “The main point here is to send a message,” says Rose Cusion-Villazor, staff attorney for NYLPI, claiming the family was rebuffed for both their national origin and Murtaza’s disability; the doctor’s action, the suit claims, violates the federal Civil Rights Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and New York City Human Rights Law.
“It was very insulting,” says Yousef, who owns a Queens-based construction company. “I had my driver’s license, my Medicaid card, other forms of ID. I still can’t figure it out. I mean, it’s the doctor-not the FBI!”
In defense, Chowlera’s attorney, Eliott Polland, called the suit baseless. “There’s absolutely no substance here,” he says. “The doctor has a policy of making sure people are who they claim they are. It didn’t have to be a passport-it could have been any type of identification. Besides, our client is a minority [Chowlera is Indian]: Why would he be interested in inappropriately probing one’s background?”
When asked about the suit, Chowlera was brief. “I’m with a patient now, good-bye,” he said.
Asked if a patient needed a passport to receive care from Chowlera, a receptionist from the doctor’s Astoria office seemed puzzled. “We don’t have any passport policy,” she said. “Why would you need a passport? Don’t be silly. All you need is your Medicaid card and photo ID.”
However, not even a photo ID is required to receive treatment, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that administers both programs. Says regional spokesperson Danielle Gross, “All you need is your Medicaid card. You should be fine.”