Advocates for legal immigrants joined a panel of religious leaders yesterday to ask the General Assembly to restore health care coverage stripped by the governor from thousands of poor children and pregnant women.
All of the children and women are immigrants who are in the country legally and whose health care coverage had been covered by a $7 million pool within the state's Medical Assistance Program.
Their coverage ended July 1, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., citing a tight state budget, cut care for legal immigrant children and pregnant women who have been in the country fewer than five years.
Now, with the state running a surplus for the second consecutive year, witnesses told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee yesterday that the cuts should be reversed.
"We have women who need ultrasounds and we have nowhere to refer them," Mindy K. Binderman, a lobbyist for the Maryland Community Health System, told the committee. "It's heartbreaking. For newly pregnant women, it has been horrifying to see."
A lack of prenatal care means an almost certain increase in the number of lightweight babies born to women who were removed from the program, Binderman and other advocates said.
Those babies require longer hospital stays, and when their families cannot pay the bills, the result is higher health care and insurance costs for everybody else, Binderman told the panel.
The committee was considering legislation sponsored by Del. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, who said he hoped the Senate would show "more compassion, more logic and more leadership" on the issue than has been shown by the governor and by House leaders.
His initial proposal to restore the $7 million for medical coverage was altered by the House, which voted to continue a $3 million "health initiative." The action does not specifically restore coverage.
Ramirez told the Senate committee that immigration has become a hot-button political issue but that it is time to realize what - and who - the governor's cuts affect.
"We're talking about babies and soon-to-be U.S. citizens," he said. "I think we need to get beyond the immigrant label."
He urged the committee to restore the $7 million, as his bill intended. Because the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 has been approved, Ramirez's legislation would provide money in the future.
Representatives from the Maryland Catholic Conference and Maryland Interfaith Legislative Committee testified in favor of restoring the cuts, as did the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
"We see this issue as a priority for the faith communities," said Karen DeCamp, director of the interfaith committee. Government, she said, is supposed to care for the "weakest and most vulnerable among us."
No Ehrlich administration official spoke in defense of the budget cuts at the hearing. Nearly a year ago, when the cuts were made, S. Anthony McCann, the state's health secretary, said they were part of tough decisions being made to balance the budget, that other medical assistance programs could absorb some of the people who were cut from the roles, and that sponsors for the immigrants could help others.
Eric Gally, a lobbyist for Advocates for Children and Youth, testified that the cuts, while not desirable, were understandable given the state's precarious budget situation heading into the 2005 legislative session. But those days are past, he said, and it's time to restore the cuts.
"Not only is it the humane thing to do," he said, "but for society it's the most cost-effective action to take."
The state is being sued by the Legal Aid Bureau, which is arguing that singling out a specific class of Marylanders - such as legal immigrant children and women - violates the state's equal protection guarantees.
The Maryland Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear the case May 31.
Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat and a member of the budget committee, said she will continue to appeal to Ehrlich to put children ahead of politics.
"These are human beings," she said after the committee meeting yesterday. "What in the world is he thinking?"