State cuts Medicaid to legal immigrants | VailDaily.com
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State cuts Medicaid to legal immigrants

Veronica Whitney

“Most of the legal immigrants that will lose Medicaid benefits are the most vulnerable,” Kathleen Forinash, director of Eagle County Health and Human Services, said Thursday. “They are elderly people with significant health problems who can’t go to work. If they lose these benefits, we’ll do everything we can to help them.”

On Wednesday, a federal judge upheld a state law cutting off Medicaid benefits to about 3,500 legal immigrants in Colorado – 11 in Eagle County.

U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn rejected a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to block the new law, which was designed to save the state about $1.3 million through the rest of the fiscal year.

The ACLU on Thursday appealed the judge’s decision in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We will also try to put an injunction to the law to prevent Blackburn’s order from going into effect,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director. “The new law is discriminatory because the state is cutting off benefits of legal immigrants while it continues to provide services to citizens.”

Although the law is now in effect, Ken Lane, spokesman for Attorney General Ken Salazar, said he didn’t know when it would be implemented.

Constitutionality

Medicaid, funded by the federal and state governments, provides medical benefits to low-income state residents.

Blackburn issued an order April 1, the day the law originally was supposed to go into effect, delaying it until he could rule on its constitutionality. The law, contained in Senate Bill 176, was passed last month as part of a package of bills to offset an $850 million state budget shortfall in the current fiscal year.

Blackburn said many legal immigrants would suffer irreparable harm if the benefits were stopped, but the broader public need for a balanced state budget outweighed their health care needs.

“”I don’t think that public policy is served by this kind of a thing,” said Gregory Piche, a lawyer for the ACLU. “”Under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, all the people living in the state are supposed to be in this together, but what we see is sort of a political reflection that we’re all in this alone.”

When will benfits be cut?

As of Thursday, Forinash said she hadn’t received notice from the state department to terminate legal immigrants’ benefits.

“We haven’t heard anything yet,” she said. “Last time (before the judge’s injunction), they sent us immediate notice of what action they wanted us to take. They asked us to review all cases and to take closure activity.”

The cuts will include prenatal care; pregnant women will be enrolled in emergency Medicaid for their labor and delivery.

But, Forinash said, the EagleCare Medical Clinic in Edwards will keep providing prenatal care to those women who need it.

“Some folks are thinking of relocating to other states if they lose benefits, but not everybody can do that,” she said.

Colorado, which started providing Medicaid benefits to legal immigrants in 1997, will be one of the first states to cut Medicaid benefits to legal immigrants. Federal law forbids denying emergency medical care to anyone, although it gives states the option of covering legal immigrants for preventive medicine.

Piche had argued that cutting off the immigrants’ benefits would deprive them of crucial medical care including chemotherapy, surgery and life-sustaining drugs because they cannot afford it.

Blackburn acknowledged that harm to those immigrants from the law would be greater than harm to the state. But, he said, the immigrants had failed to prove the public interest would best be served by blocking the law. He also said the state’s concern for its fiscal health was a rational basis for passing the law and that the immigrants who already had been contacted by county health agencies about the law were offered the opportunity to argue against termination of benefits.

“”Nobody in state government takes pleasure in these particular cuts, but the court ruled that they appear to be lawful and that the plaintiffs are therefore unlikely to prevail at trial on their claims,” Lane said.

Another bill moving through the Legislature would maintain Medicaid benefits for legal immigrants living in nursing homes. The bill, however, will only protect people who already are in nursing homes now.

In written closing arguments, Salazar said a decision to block the law would have made lawmakers reluctant to extend Medicaid benefits to other groups of people not required to receive coverage under federal law.

He said state budget decisions should be left in the hands of elected legislators.

Unfairly targeted?

Polly Baca, a former legislator and executive director of the Latino community group LARASA, said last week immigrants were unfairly targeted in the Legislature’s push to cut spending.

“”With this measure, they will cause greater expenditures down the road that will have to be picked up by taxpayers,” she said. “”Why not be responsible now and find the funds by the many means they have to increase revenue?”

She and officials of other groups serving immigrants said people now receiving Medicaid benefits would delay seeking care and be forced to turn to emergency rooms for treatment.

Rep. Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, who voted against the bill, said the judge’s ruling was very disappointing, but not surprising.

“It looks as we will proceed to cut off kids and pregnant women from health care,” he said. “This is small percentage of the state budget but a big bite for a family or an individual.”

Of the 3,500 people who will be affected in the state, 26 percent are children, 30 percent are able-bodied adults and 44 percent are elderly or disabled, according to Karen Reinertson, executive director of the department that oversees Medicaid.

Medicaid changes

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

– The state prenatal program for legal immigrants is cancelled.

– Undocumented pregnant women lose their prenatal benefits entirely. They will be automatically enrolled onto emergency Medicaid for their labor and delivery.

For more information call Eagle County Health and Human Services at 328-8840.

Help in the valley

EagleCare Medical Clinic in Edwards will continue providing care to uninsured people, says Sarah Ladd, community relations coordinator with Vail Valley Medical Center. The clinic is located at 320 Beard Creek Rd. in Edwards.

For more information call 569-7520.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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