- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s health secretary yesterday defended the administration’s decision to cut off health care for some pregnant women and children who are legal immigrants, saying it was “the best answer we could come up with” given his mandate to cut spending in his agency to help balance the state budget.

S. Anthony McCann, who took over as health secretary 10 months ago, said he was faced with reducing spending in a way that would “do as little damage as possible.”

He said the legal immigrant health care program made his list of cuts because there are other programs that can take care of some of the health care needs of those women and children.

“This was at the time, and I still believe it is, the best way to go,” Mr. McCann said.

But the decision drew criticism from representatives of health care and child advocacy groups, who said it will end up costing more money for the state and will damage the health of children whose mothers will not have access to doctors during their pregnancies.

On July 1, the Ehrlich administration removed almost 3,000 children who are legally in the United States from health care coverage under the Medicaid program. About 750 pregnant women were enrolled in the program on June 30; the state will continue to pay for prenatal care until their babies are born, but will not enroll any new pregnant women.

The federal government stopped providing funding for health care for legal immigrants who have been in the United States for less than five years in 1996, but Maryland decided at the time to continue the program and pay for it entirely with state funds.

Several witnesses said at a hearing held by two House and Senate budget subcommittees that the state will end up paying even more money now that it has stopped providing prenatal care for pregnant women and health care for children.

Pegeen Townsend, a Maryland Hospital Association vice president, said the state spends only about $1,600 for care for a woman who has a normal birth, but that the cost for a child without prenatal care who winds up in an intensive care unit with low birth weight or other problems is about $20,000.

Montgomery County Health Officer Ulder J. Tillman said women and children who do not get adequate care will be a burden on others.

“Ultimately, in the end, we will all wind up paying more for this decision,” she said.

Jonathan Blazer, public health benefits specialist for the National Immigration Law Center, said Washington state tried what Maryland is now doing, and the argument made by Mr. McCann that other private and local government programs would pick up the slack was also made in that state.

“What they found was that kids dropped off” and did not have access to health care, Mr. Blazer said.

Washington state has reinstated the program, he said.

Linda Heisner of the advocacy group Medicaid Matters said when children who don’t have regular access to a doctor get sick, “parents wait to see if its going to get better.” The result may be that they wind up having to make visits to expensive hospital emergency rooms when children become seriously ill.

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