Ehrlich urged to restore benefits

Groups seek reinstatement of Medicare program for immigrant children, pregnant women

General assembly


The day before Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expected to stamp his signature on scores of pieces of legislation, immigrant advocates, poor families and medical experts urged the governor to adopt a measure to restore health insurance benefits to thousands of women and children.

"We want to send a message that Maryland welcomes new Americans," said Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat who organized a news conference in Adelphi yesterday calling for the bill to be signed into law. "This is an exceptional group that has a particular need."

Ramirez led an effort in the General Assembly to reinstate a $7 million Medicaid program Ehrlich eliminated last July. The bill, passed overwhelmingly by lawmakers, would require the governor to provide $3 million in medical care funding in future budgets for low-income pregnant women and children who have been in the country legally for less than five years.

Dr. Donald Shell, deputy health officer for Prince George's County, said extending insurance to this population - particularly for pregnant women - is ultimately cost-effective. Every dollar spent on prenatal care saves $3 in the long term, considering the complications that newborns can face when their mothers have not had proper care, he said.

"This is a major problem and it affects a lot of people," he said. "People just need care."

But whether the governor will sign the measure into law remains uncertain. Ehrlich allocated $3 million in the coming year's budget for grants to some local health departments to help cover the population. But advocates say that without insurance, where patients can choose doctors and receive routine care, poor families will be at risk.

An Ehrlich spokesman would not comment on the issue except to say that the administration has increased Medicaid spending more than 20 percent since 2003. "The governor has dramatically increased health insurance for the poor," said Henry Fawell.

But advocates argue the governor is to blame for cutting off health benefits to an estimated 3,000 children and 1,000 pregnant women last summer as part of budget reductions.

Last fall, the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau sued the state on behalf of poor families who it says have been discriminated against. The plaintiffs, who are from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, were born in such countries as Panama and Pakistan with conditions including asthma and a rare blood disease. The Maryland Court of Appeals is slated to hear arguments in the case next month.

But the administration has argued that Maryland was one of only a handful of states to retain coverage for this population after 1996 welfare reform legislation prevented federal dollars from being used for most legal immigrants here less than five years.

Since then, through last June, Maryland supplemented the coverage with state dollars through the Medical Assistance program.

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