ANNAPOLIS- In what could be another legislative rebuke to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland legislators are considering a bill that would restore the $7 million in state funds the governor cut last year to provide medical assistance to children and pregnant women who have legally immigrated to the United States.
In a joint hearing Tuesday, delegates from the House Appropriations and Health and Government Operations committees heard nearly an hour and a half of testimony from health advocates, faith organizations and child advocates on behalf of the bill.
Delegate Victor R. Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, the bill’s sponsor, said that the bill is designed solely to help the people who have gone through the proper legal processes.
“They have played by the rules,” he said. “They are taxpayers. They live in our communities. They are part of our communities.”
Ehrlich cut the $7 million in Medicaid funding for residents who have lived in the United States for less than five years from his fiscal 2006 budget, but has included about $3 million in his fiscal 2007 budget for grants to local health departments to provide similar services to legal immigrants.
The federal government has not provided Medicaid for so-called permanent residents of less than five years since 1996.
Henry P. Fawell, Ehrlich’s press secretary, said that the governor has not taken a position on the bill, but defended the cuts.
“That was part of an effort to align funding for that specific program with federal spending,” he said.
Proponents of the bill say that providing Medicaid funding for prenatal care would actually save the state money, as the costs for care of low-birth-weight children are far greater, and all children born in the United States are citizens entitled to medical assistance, regardless of their parent’s immigration status.
At a press conference before the hearing, Ehrlich’s two leading Democratic opponents in the upcoming gubernatorial race took shots at the governor for making the cuts.
Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan called restoring the funding “an issue of fiscal responsibility.”
“I don’t know how you sleep at night when you achieve a surplus by telling pregnant women and children, ‘You can’t get healthcare,'” he said.
And Delegate Anthony G. Brown, D-Prince George’s, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s running mate in the governor’s race, said that the additional $3 million in local funding “simply does not go far enough” and called the cuts “downright heartless.”
Both Duncan and O’Malley are candidates for the Democratic nomination and the right to face Republican Ehrlich in the general election.
Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary S. Anthony McCann, the only speaker at the hearing to oppose the bill, told legislators that providing money to local health departments was a good alternative to statewide Medicaid funding.
“The issue before us, I remind you, is not one of doing this or doing nothing,” he said.
He suggested a program in which funds are distributed to counties based on the number of immigrants in the population, saying that such a plan would be more cost-effective and would keep funds for hospitals and nursing homes intact.
Delegate Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George’s, scoffed at that contention in a heated exchange with McCann. “The state of Maryland ought to be ashamed of itself,” she said.