Bill targets immigrant health

House measure seeks restoration of funds for Medicaid insurance cut by Ehrlich in 2005

General Assembly

March 01, 2006|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

Just weeks before Muhammad Zahid Iqbal's 5-year-old daughter, Eelaaf, was scheduled to have surgery to repair two dislocated hips, the Glen Burnie family received a letter from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that Eelaaf's health insurance was being eliminated.

The family could not afford the estimated $20,000 for the procedure, and when Eelaaf developed asthma, Iqbal was forced to pay for an emergency room visit and medication that had previously been covered by insurance.

Immigrant advocates said yesterday that Iqbal's story is one of many playing out in Maryland, where an estimated 3,000 legal immigrant children have gone without health care insurance since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. eliminated a $7 million Medicaid program in July. Two House committees heard testimony yesterday on a bill that would require the governor to allocate at least $7 million in future budgets to cover low-income children and pregnant women.

While the legislature can't add to the governor's proposed budget once it is submitted, it can pass legislation requiring funding in future years.

"These are women and children who are law-abiding residents; the children of these women will be U.S. citizens," said Del. Victor R. Ramirez, the bill's sponsor, at a news conference yesterday.

A Democrat from Prince George's County, Ramirez was flanked by immigrant advocates, medical experts and Ehrlich's Democratic challengers in the governor's race.

"I don't know how you sleep at night when you achieve a surplus, by telling pregnant women and children you can't get health care," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is running for governor. "It's wrong, and we need to reverse that."

Del. Anthony G. Brown, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's running mate, said it's up to the legislature to do what Ehrlich has not. "The governor's decision to cut $7 million in Medicaid, I believe, is not only irresponsible, it's just downright heartless," he said.

The issue sparked outrage from immigrant advocates, who filed a lawsuit last fall contending that the Ehrlich administration has unfairly penalized noncitizens by stripping their benefits. The case, in which Iqbal is one of 13 plaintiffs, is expected go to trial in April.

Uninsured children are at risk for developing serious conditions because they receive care late in the development of a problem, or not at all, said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, at the news conference.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene opposes the bill, saying that Ehrlich restored $3 million in his 2007 proposed budget that would allow local jurisdictions to offer care to children and pregnant women. Allocating the money would create an additional entitlement program, paid for with general funds.

But advocates say restoring the $7 million is fiscally responsible.

Without the allocation, women would go without essential prenatal care, driving up Medicaid costs once children are born because their newborns are automatically citizens and would be eligible for Medicaid, said Pamela Kasemeyer, a lobbyist representing several medical associations.

In 1996, when the federal Medicaid program stopped covering legal immigrant children and pregnant women who have been in the country less than five years, Maryland continued the coverage. Jonathan Blazer, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said yesterday that in recent years, many states have extended coverage, acknowledging the long-term cost benefits.

Iqbal said navigating the health care system as a new immigrant can be confounding, not to mention nerve-racking when a sick child is involved.

"I think this law should pass," he said. "Not just for me, but for all immigrants. The immigrants come here trying to get jobs, trying to understand the system. It's very complicated."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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