- Associated Press - Thursday, February 6, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - The South Dakota House Health and Human Services Committee passed a measure Thursday that would provide prenatal care to low-income women who are in the country illegally.

The bill would authorize an expansion of Medicaid services for pregnant women who didn’t previously qualify because of their legal status. Supporters of the measure say it will increase the survival rate of children and save the state money in the long term by providing preventative care.

“I’m going to sleep well every night knowing I protected an unborn life,” said Rep. Melissa Magstadt, R-Watertown, who voted for the bill.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, said the bill has drawn bipartisan support.

“The conservatives like it because it speaks to providing assistance to the unborn,” Hunhoff said before the committee meeting. “The liberals are very concerned about providing health care to the poor.”

The committee voted 11-1 to support the bill, which will next go to the House floor for debate and then, if approved, to the Senate.

Pediatrician and neonatal specialist Dr. Lawrence Fenton said the longer a woman receives prenatal care the more likely her child is to survive. He said doctors can identify problems early and address nutrition and other behavior such as smoking that could affect the long-term health of babies.

The provision of folic acid supplements during pregnancy, for example, can prevent spina bifida in a child, a condition that causes lifelong disabilities, Fenton said.

The potential cost savings are huge.

The national average cost for a baby in the intensive care unit is $3,000 per day, a formidable cost for the uninsured, low-income mothers affected by this bill. That’s a cost that hospitals and the state have to absorb, said Rep. Scott Ecklund, R-Brandon, a physician and sponsor of the bill. In comparison, the average total cost of prenatal care is $2,000, he said.

Funding for the new provision would come from a combination of state and federal dollars. The mothers receiving care under this provision would pay nothing.

The only vote against the bill came from Rep. Jenna Haggar, R-Sioux Falls, who argued that it was effectively an expansion of health care for people living in the country illegally.

Ecklund said the bill “does not make a statement on either side of the immigration debate.”

Nonetheless, Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, suggested that a provision be added to the bill to protect eligible women from being deported, saying mothers-to-be might avoid seeking assistance for fear of their status being revealed.

“I would certainly not want to see anybody hesitate to get this care because they’re afraid of deportation,” he said. Ecklund said privacy laws likely would protect women who sought prenatal care under the bill.

Children born in the United States are automatically citizens.

A similar bill failed to pass last year, but Ecklund said Gov. Dennis Daugaard plans to sign it this year if it makes it through the House and Senate.

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