Governor restores one health care cut

Ehrlich OKs $1.5 million for pregnant immigrants

July 21, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Three weeks after ending health care benefits to pregnant legal immigrants in Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that he would restore $1.5 million to continue their coverage.

The governor credited a $1 billion state surplus, announced this week, for making it possible to keep the benefits.

"The resulting surplus allows us to provide additional funding to results-oriented programs that provide important services to vulnerable Marylanders," Ehrlich said in a statement.

But the administration did not authorize restoring another portion of the program that ended July 1 -- $5.5 million to cover health care for the children of low-income families who are legal permanent residents.

And the $1.5 million for pregnant women will cover only those enrolled in the program as of July 1; state health officials say no new cases will be accepted.

Ehrlich's budget plan for this fiscal year initially had proposed eliminating a $7 million Medicaid program that covered legal immigrant children and pregnant women. Last month, state health officials sent letters to those families -- about 4,000 people statewide -- notifying them about the loss of health care benefits beginning July 1, the start of the fiscal year.

The program cut drew the ire of immigrant advocacy groups and many state legislators, as well as Ehrlich's two most likely Democratic foes in the 2006 gubernatorial election, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. The critics argued that Ehrlich was removing a safety net for some of the state's most vulnerable residents.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly attempted to stave off some of the cuts by insisting Ehrlich include $1.5 million in the budget to cover pregnant women -- a move resisted by the administration.

Duncan memo

Toward the end of June, as word spread that the Ehrlich administration had not restored any of the money and the program was set to end, Duncan responded by sending the governor a stinging memo calling health care cuts for pregnant women "unconscionable."

Yesterday, Duncan said in a statement that while he is pleased some funding will be restored, he wishes Ehrlich would restore the $5.5 million for children's health benefits.

"Thirteen hundred children in Montgomery County alone are being denied care because the governor does not believe that every child has a right to a healthy start," Duncan said. "No one in Maryland should be denied access to safe, affordable health care. Rather than limiting access, we should be looking for ways to expand it."

Tom Perez, president of the Montgomery County Council, who signed Duncan's letter criticizing Ehrlich, called the governor's announcement yesterday unnecessary.

"I am ecstatic for the individuals who will be able to get access to the services they so desperately need," Perez said. "But it's hard for me to do cartwheels for undoing something he never should have cut in the first place."

In addition to the health care funding for pregnant women, the governor also announced yesterday money for three other programs: $51,000 for citizenship classes; $1.34 million for the Temporary Cash Assistance program, which helps unemployed and part-time workers and their families; and $880,000 for day care for the elderly.

Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said the decision to provide health care benefits to pregnant women was not based on criticism from advocates and legislators, who had scheduled a hearing on the cuts next week.

"This is solely a decision based on the state's new fiscal outlook," Fawell said.

`Always money'

House Speaker Michael E. Busch disputed the notion that the newly announced surplus provided the means for the funding.

"The programs we were talking about, there was always money available," he said. "We set it aside knowing that there was going to be at least a $400 million surplus."

Ricardo Flores, public policy director at the Public Justice Center and a member of the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice, said funding for pregnant women and children helps to ensure preventative health care, which can limit expensive emergency treatment and save lives.

"These are programs that not only serve legitimate needs, but they are programs that save the state in long-term health costs," he said.

In terms of restoring the other health care benefit cuts, S. Anthony McCann, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said he does not believe it's possible to get any more money. All the governor did was agree to the request from state lawmakers to restore the $1.5 million for pregnant women.

"I'm not sure how we go back to them now while they're out of session and say, `That's not enough, we'd like more,'" McCann said.

The new funds will be used to provide services to a group of pregnant women who were receiving services as of July 1. No new cases will be taken on, he said.

"The original proposal would have dropped them in the middle of service," he said. "This sees them through the end of pregnancy. In fact, it will take more than $1.5 million just to cover that."

Sun staff writer William Wan contributed to this article.

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