Federal court delays Colorado’s Medicaid cuts to legal immigrants
SUMMIT COUNTY – Legal immigrants who receive Medicaid benefits are breathing a little easier since a federal court issued a temporary restraining order blocking legislation that would have discontinued those benefits.
Gov. Bill Owens signed Senate Bill 176 into law on March 5, effectively denying Medicaid benefits to legal immigrants beginning April 1. U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn issued a temporary restraining order until its constitutionality can be proven in court.
Statewide, the change will affect 3,479 people – including 905 children. None are in Summit County, said Sue Gruber, director of the county Social Services department. Only six people applied for assistance last year, she said, but they didn’t qualify for the program.
Colorado is the first state to try to cut Medicaid benefits to legal immigrants. Additionally, cutting state Medicaid funding disqualifies 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.
State legislators have scrambled to make $870 million in cuts to balance the budget before fiscal year 2002-03 ends June 30. The bill is one of 45 bills Owens signed, 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.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit challenging the law, saying it violates the 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 that individuals who remain eligible aren’t mistakenly cut off.
“The new law singles out sick and elderly legal immigrants who desperately depend on this assistance for vital care,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director. “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.”
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, outpatient medical procedures.
“It’s a decision you can call penny wise and pound foolish,” Romanoff said. “We will still have to pay for the emergency room bills, and that’s the most expensive. Immigrants are a very tempting political target because they can’t vote.”
Colorado law forbids denying emergency medical care to anyone, although federal law gives states the option of covering legal immigrants for preventive medicine.
“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 in Denver.
The law also would affect people in nursing homes, whose families are seldom qualified – or financially able – to provide round-the-clock care.
Social services officials hope to reverse the law in the next legislative session.
“I voted for every possible cut because we are in a crisis,” Romanoff said, “but I don’t think a crisis justifies depriving people of the services that their taxes pay for.”
“It’s pretty frightening,” Gruber said of cuts being made at the state level. “It’s not a pretty time.”
– Veronica Whitney of the Vail Daily contributed to this report.
Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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