Md. court rules against cuts in health care benefits

Decision favors legal immigrants battling for state insurance money

October 13, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Maryland's highest court sided with the families of 13 legal immigrant children yesterday in a long-running battle over their right to state health insurance that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. eliminated more than a year ago.

The Maryland Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a preliminary injunction against the cuts granted in January by a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge, who temporarily restored the benefits.

But the appeals court disagreed with the Circuit Court's order that Maryland reimburse the families for medical bills dating to July 2005, when Ehrlich eliminated the funding.

Although the matter will return to the Montgomery court for final resolution, attorneys for the 13 plaintiffs - a group that includes a boy with a rare blood disease and a girl with West Nile virus - called the Court of Appeals opinion a "sweeping victory."

"It's a victory for the kids who have desperate health needs, whom Governor Ehrlich turned his back on," said Bethesda attorney Douglas M. Bregman, who last fall filed the lawsuit in conjunction with the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau. "The bottom line is the state of Maryland cannot turn its back on the health care needs of legal immigrant children."

An Ehrlich spokesman referred comment to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which administers the state's Medicaid program.

"We are reviewing the Court of Appeals opinion; we are obviously disappointed," said Karen Black, a spokeswoman for the department

In July 2005, Ehrlich eliminated $7 million from a program covering about 4,000 low-income pregnant women and children who have been in the country legally less than five years. Although the administration cited budget difficulties, Democrats and immigrant advocates argued the cuts were cruel and discriminatory.

Ehrlich later restored $1.5 million to cover pregnant women already enrolled in the program, and this year - after loud complaints from Democratic lawmakers - his budget allotted $3 million in grants to local health departments to cover the population. But the grants did not specifically restore the benefits.

After January's Circuit Court decision ordered the state to restore the benefits, the administration was granted a stay. The Court of Appeals heard the case in May.

In arguments, attorneys for the state pointed out that Maryland was among a handful of states that covered the population even after changes in federal guidelines in 1996. That year, Congress' sweeping welfare reform act prevented federal Medicaid funds from covering legal immigrants who had been in the country less than five years but allowed states the discretion to fund the benefit on their own.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said Maryland cuts discriminated against noncitizens, violating equal protection guarantees in the state Constitution.

In yesterday's decision, judges said the lower court was correct in granting the preliminary injunction because it is likely the plaintiffs will win on the merits of the discrimination claim.

"The failure to appropriate monies for medical assistance benefits on the basis of alienage violated the equal protection guarantees of Article 24 and the Declaration of Rights," the decision stated.

Regan Bailey, a Legal Aid attorney for the plaintiffs, said she thinks the Court of Appeals' conclusion leaves little room for the administration to argue that it did not violate the constitution.kelly.brewington@baltsun.com.

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