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El Paso families volunteered to send loved ones out of town for COVID-19 treatment. They were told they’d have to pay to have bodies returned

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Thirty-two-year old Juan Chico died of COVID-19 in an Austin hospital after his family agreed to have him flown out of an El Paso intensive care unit for treatment.

Juan Chico

Area hospitals and families that participate in the voluntary program are told the transportation expense to and from out-of-town hospitals will be covered by the state’s Border Regional Advisory Council. But because of what officials say was a breakdown in communication, Chico’s family was told they had to pay $6,000 to cover the cost of bringing his body home.

About 60 El Pasoans have been flown to other cities to be treated for COVID-19 since the crisis began to overwhelm the city’s hospitals in recent weeks. New cases have been growing by about 1,000 or more per day for weeks and more than 1,000 El Pasoans are hospitalized with the novel coronavirus, with nearly 300 in intensive care units.

While the family waits for the state to clear up the miscommunication, Chico’s remains are still nearly 600 miles away. He died Friday, a week after being flown to Austin from El Paso.

“It is kind of hard on us because we are not able to put him to rest after all of this. He is still in Austin. He has not been taken care of,” said Maria Ramirez, Chico’s cousin. “At least when somebody passes away here at home they are with the funeral home, and it usually takes about a week, but you know he is home — you know he is there and he is resting.”

Ramirez reached out to Operation H.O.P.E for financial help to cover the unforeseen cost.

Operation H.O.P.E, or Helping Other People Endure, helped families with funeral expenses following the Aug. 3, 2019, terror attack where 23 people were killed by a white supremacist. The nonprofit organization also is helping El Pasoans who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

Angel Gomez of Operation H.O.P.E said at least seven families have been told they had to cover the expense of repatriating their loved ones who died of COVID-19 after being flown to other cities for treatment.

Chris Acosta, spokeswoman for the El Paso County’s Sheriff’s Office, said a lieutenant whose son was transported to a Tuscon hospital with COVID-19 and died was also told the family would be responsible for the cost of repatriation.

“They are devastated,” Acosta said.

Ryan Mielke, a spokesman for University Medical Center of El Paso, said the state is supposed to cover the cost of transportation to and from, including repatriation of remains if necessary.

Mielke said the state sent notices to hospitals and funeral homes Wednesday after a media report about the issue aired Tuesday.

Gomez said he was contacted by the state Wednesday morning and was told that the nonprofit and families would be reimbursed for any costs that had been paid for repatriation.

Ramirez, Chico’s cousin, said he and his mother both had been hospitalized for COVID-19. He was the primary caregiver to his mother.

“He got really bad and they needed to put him on a ventilator, but they didn’t have room here,” Ramirez said. “He had been in the emergency room for close to two days and then they asked if we wanted to move him to a different hospital — that the city was sending patients out to different cities because they didn’t have room here.”

Chico’s family agreed to have him airlifted to Austin.

 “It was kind of a heavy toll for all of us because we really wish he would have stayed here at home, but for his safety we wanted him to get the best care possible,” Ramirez said.

Chico’s family has started a GoFundMe campaign to pay for expenses.

Cover photo: Juan Chico and his mother, Laura Medina (Photo courtesy of Maria Ramirez)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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