Tone deaf

March 02, 2006

As various health care and immigrant advocacy groups pressed him repeatedly to restore a $7 million cut in state spending this year on subsidized health insurance for legal immigrant children and pregnant women, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. steadfastly refused. With legislation introduced this week, state lawmakers may now be able to force him to allocate at least $7 million in future budgets to cover the health care benefits.

Mr. Ehrlich says the budget cut was necessary to rein in spending on Medicaid and a state-funded insurance program for children. But the measure sponsored by Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, would ultimately provide cost savings by paying for non-emergency medical care for children and prenatal care for pregnant women who would likely turn to costlier, publicly supported hospital emergency rooms and overwhelmed neighborhood clinics for care. Though legal immigrants, the people cut from the program are non-citizens and thus are not automatically eligible for the benefits.

Targeting this relatively small group of 4,000 poor and medically vulnerable people, about 3,000 of them children, is not an efficient way to save money. What's more, women without access to prenatal care are more likely to deliver premature and low-birth-weight babies who require significantly more expensive medical care that the state will end up paying for anyway.

Mr. Ehrlich did restore $1.5 million in health care funding last summer under pressure from state lawmakers, but that covered only about 1,000 women already enrolled in the insurance program. The governor's proposed 2007 budget includes $3 million for local health departments that state health administrators say can provide care to the uninsured women and children. Given its budget surplus, the state ought to be able to do better than turn these people over to overwhelmed local health departments.

Several health and children's advocacy groups support this measure, as does the Women's Caucus of the Maryland General Assembly. Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle should back the legislation and demonstrate their ability to differentiate between short-term fiscal policy gains and long-term social policy benefits.

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