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State healthcare cuts hit legal immigrants

Veronica Whitney

Marmalejo, a 65-year-old Mexican national who has been living in the United States for more than 40 years, has been slowly losing her eyesight.

“I’m sad that they are cutting my health benefits because I was looking forward to work again and I need the surgery to do that,” said Marmolejo, who lives in Avon with her daughter and grandchildren.

Although the doctors have told Marmolejo that with surgery she has a 50 percent possibility of seeing well with one of her eyes, she doesn’t know how she will pay for it. Marmolejo, a legal resident of the United States, is among 11 Eagle County residents who will have to go without healthcare once the state cancels Medicaid benefits for legal immigrants on April 1. Statewide, the change will impact thousands of people.

Colorado will become one of three states to deny Medicaid benefits to legal immigrants. As part of an effort to make up an $870 million budget deficit, earlier this month, Gov. Bill Owens signed into law Senate Bill 176, which discontinues Medicaid coverage for legal immigrants. The bill is one of 45 bills signed by Owens, totaling more than $750 million in budget cuts and money transfers.

“From a fiscal point it’s a shortsighted decision, and from a moral standpoint it’s not right,” said Rep. Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver. “These people are here legally, they work and they pay taxes like any U.S. citizen.”

Medicaid provides medical benefits to low-income state residents and is funded by federal and state money.

“It’s a decision you can call penny wise and pound foolish. We will still have to pay for the emergency care room bills, and that’s the most expensive,” Romanoff said. “Immigrants are a very tempting political target because they can’t vote. The legislature targeted them also because it can.”

Although emergency care is mandatory, federal law gives states the option of covering legal immigrants for preventive medicine. The bill will drop more than 3,500 documented immigrants from the state’s Medicaid program that includes prenatal care.

Unhealthy cuts?

“This is such a terrible piece of legislation. This law will hurt the most vulnerable people in the community,” said Polly Vaca, executive director with the Latin American Research and Service Agency (LARASA) in Denver.

In Eagle County, the people who will be affected by the measure include, one child, a woman who gave birth in February and nine other adults, said Kathleen Forinash, director of health and human services with Eagle County. About 10 women used the prenatal benefits last year.

“This cut just adds people to the uninsured group,” she said. “Also, with this law, we are also losing federal money that supports that program. The federal government funds 50 percent of the Medicaid program.”

Still, Forinash said, Eagle County is one of eight counties in Colorado that receives federal money for a prenatal care program for women with low income. The county gets $112,000 from the federal government and that program will continue.

“This money will cover prenatal care for 100 women,” Forinash said.”We get about 200 requests annually.”

Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi said the new law is a sign of how desperate the cuts have been made. Eliminating benefits for legal immigrants will save the state $2.6 million this fiscal year, and up to $10 million next year.

“But it’s falling on the weak, the people who aren’t voting,” said Menconi, who is vice chair of Colorado Counties Inc. Health and Human Service Steering Committee. “It isn’t fair or equitable to take away services to one group who also pays their share of taxes when it’s provided to the other.”

Women who are pregnant will lose all the prenatal benefits, which, Vaca said, are indispensable for the future health of the baby.

“This is an immoral law,” Vaca said . “It hurts the unborn baby, and that is wrong.”

Getting informed

But Vaca said immigrants should clarify their status before assuming they won’t be covered.

“If they have worked 10 years and have acquired 40 quarters of social security, they will be covered,” she said.

Vaca said her agency and others have formed a coalition to inform immigrants of the changes.

“We will also try to get it reversed in the next legislative session,” she said. “People should contact their legislators to repeal this law.”

So far, Forinash said, she doesn’t plan to ask the county commissioners for money to replace the healthcare coverage.

“Unfortunately, they are on their own,” she said. “Many of them, however, live with their families and can get some support from them.”

But the EagleCare Medical Clinic in Edwards will keep providing healthcare to those who need it, said Sarah Ladd, community relations coordinator with Vail Valley Medical Center. Fifty percent of the patients at the clinic get prenatal care regardless their legal status in the country.

“We don’t ask anyone of their immigration status. We are a not-for-profit hospital,” Ladd said.

Although this is a terrible budget year, Romanoff said, Senate Bill 176 shouldn’t have passed.

“Many of these immigrants are senior citizens who fought in World War II,” Romanoff said. “They were on our side and now the message to them seems to be, “Thank you very much.’

“I voted for every possible cut because we are in a crisis,” he said, “but I don’t think a crisis justifies depriving people of the services that their taxes pay for.”

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


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