- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Lawyers trying to restore state health care benefits for 13 children who are legal immigrants faced tough questioning yesterday at a hearing before the Maryland Court of Appeals.

While questions don’t always indicate how individual judges or the full court will rule, lawyers who brought the suit challenging Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s decision to eliminate health care for pregnant women and children who are legal immigrants were pressed repeatedly on key points in their claim that the governor acted illegally.

Hannah Lieberman, who argued the case for the Legal Aid Bureau, said once Maryland chose to provide health care to legal immigrants through the Medicaid program even though that is not required under federal law, Mr. Ehrlich could not simply choose to eliminate that one category from the program.

“[The state] gave the legal aliens an important benefit. Now it’s taking it away,” she said.

Several judges pressed Miss Lieberman on why the state could not stop doing something it voluntarily chose to do.

“If you don’t have to do it to begin with, why do you have to keep doing it?” Judge Dale Cathell asked Miss Lieberman.

Assistant Attorney General Margaret Ann Nolan argued that the state is not required to include legal immigrants in the Medicaid program.

She also told the judges that the appeals court lacked the authority to intervene in budget decisions by the governor and the General Assembly.

Douglas Bregman, a Bethesda lawyer who volunteered his services to represent the 13 children, responded that the state has a constitutional and legal obligation to provide coverage.

“The governor says, ‘I’m not going to protect them, not going to cover them. They get nothing,’” Mr. Bregman said. “The judiciary has the ultimate authority to hold the governor to constitutional provisions and existing law.”

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election, eliminated funding for legal immigrant health care in his 2005 budget, saving the state $7 million.

The decision drew sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers, Hispanic groups and advocates for children, and Mr. Ehrlich later restored $1.5 million to continue care for pregnant women already enrolled in the program.

The Democrat-controlled legislature passed a bill this year, which was signed by Mr. Ehrlich, that will require future governors to include at least $3 million in the budget for health care for pregnant women and children who have been in the United States less than five years.

After five years, legal immigrants are covered under the federal Medicaid program.

After Mr. Ehrlich eliminated funding last year, the Legal Aid Bureau filed suit on behalf of a group of children who had lost health care coverage, and Montgomery County Circuit Judge Durke G. Thompson sided with the bureau.

While the suit is not a class-action suit that applies to all immigrant children, Mr. Bregman said if the Court of Appeals upholds Judge Thompson’s ruling, it probably would have the effect of restoring health care for all eligible children.

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