Court delays Medicaid cuts to legal immigrants |

Court delays Medicaid cuts to legal immigrants

Veronica Whitney

The future of Medicaid benefits for here and thousands of legal immigrants in Colorado now lies in the hands of a federal judge.

Today, U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn, who issued a temporary restraining order blocking legislation that would have discontinued those benefits beginning April 1, is scheduled to hear the case in Denver. He issued the order be in effect until the law’s constitutionality can be proven in court. The order comes after the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, filed a lawsuit challenging the law signed by Gov. Bill Owens in March.

“The new law is discriminatory because the state is cutting off benefits for legal immigrants while it continues to provide services to citizens,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director. “The new law singles out sick and elderly legal immigrants who desperately depend on this assistance for vital care.”

As part of an effort to make up for an $870 million budget deficit, the governor signed into law Senate Bill 176, which discontinues Medicaid coverage for legal immigrants.

The ACLU’s suit challenges the new law, saying it violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against people who qualify for medical assistance under federal law. The suit also alleges that in their haste to implement the new law, state officials didn’t follow procedures to ensure individuals who remain eligible aren’t mistakenly cut off.

Medicaid, which provides medical benefits to low-income residents, is funded by federal and state money. In Eagle County, about a dozen residents would be affected. Statewide, the change would affect 3,479 people – including 905 children.

Sen. Ron Teck, R-Grand Junction, one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 176, said that in a budget crisis like this year’s, the priority should be the U.S. citizens.

“Tax dollars of this country should go to benefit U.S. citizens,” Teck said. “This isn’t an unfair cut. These people are here and paying taxes, but they aren’t citizens. Fairness goes to the U.S. citizens first.”

Federal law forbids denying emergency medical care to anyone, although it gives states the option of covering legal immigrants for preventive medicine. If the new legislation is upheld, Colorado would be one of three states to cut Medicaid benefits to legal immigrants.

Cutting state Medicaid funding would disqualify the state from receiving federal matching funds. This year, matching funds totalled $2.7 million; in fiscal year 2003-04, federal funding cuts would total $5 million.

For many legal immigrants, Medicaid offers the only way to receive health benefits. Taking those benefits away will likely result in their going to emergency rooms for what normally might have been a routine, out-patient medical procedure.

“The judge’s measure is terrific news for now,” said Rep. Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, who voted against the bill. At least for 10 days, the legal immigrants don’t have to be thrown to the streets. I was getting calls from people asking what they should do once they lost Medicaid.”

Polly Baca, executive director with the Latin American Research and Service Agency in Denver, said she’s hoping ACLU attorneys have a strong case.

“We have a good case, otherwise we wouldn’t have filed it,” Silverstein said. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that this kind of discrimination against legal immigrants is a direct violation of the Constitution. States simply do not have the power to save money by adopting their own restrictions that punish people who are entitled to live here and who qualify for assistance under federal law.”

Teck, meanwhile, says if the judge were to rule that, indeed, the government has to provide this health assistance to non U.S. citizens, it could open the road to other claims.

“This promises to open a whole can of issues to what the state’s responsibilities are towards immigrants,” he said.

The law also would affect people in nursing homes, whose families are seldom able to provide round-the-clock care.

“We have almost a $1 billion deficit now,” Romanoff said, “and cutting these guys off will save some money but will get us less than 1 percent of what we need to erase that deficit.

“If the judge rejects the lawsuit,” Romanoff said, “then this Legislature can still find the money to restore healthcare to these Coloradans.”

Medicaid changes under SB176

– Immigrants who enter the United States legally and have lived here for at least five years would have to work 40 qualifying quarters – or 10 years – qualify for Medicaid benefits.

– The state prenatal program for legal immigrants would be cancelled.

– Undocumented pregnant women would lose their prenatal benefits entirely and instead be assigned emergency Medicaid for their labor and delivery.

– Refugees and those under political asylum would be eligible for Medicaid benefits only for the first seven years they are in the country.

– The Associated Press

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at

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