Sides face off over prenatal care for undocumented women

2013-03-21T18:30:00Z 2013-03-27T15:14:11Z Sides face off over prenatal care for undocumented womenBy JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Opponents of a bill that would repeal a Nebraska law allowing prenatal care for some undocumented women called out politicians Thursday for trying to make political gain at the expense of babies who will become U.S. citizens.

Yazmin Gamez is a college student, an aspiring engineer and the single mother of the 4-year-old daughter who sat beside her at the hearing on a bill (LB518) before the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.

Gamez is undocumented and in the process of adjusting her status through the Department of Homeland Security's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which will give her legal presence and the right to work.

Five years ago, when she was pregnant, she had access to Medicaid for her prenatal care, and it made a huge difference, she told the committee.

She was diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, which without prenatal care could have harmed her baby, she said. She would not have known she had the condition without such care.

"Do you want to carry on your conscience preterm births that you can prevent?" she asked the committee.

Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, a declared candidate for governor, said he introduced the bill to give new members of the Legislature a chance to weigh in on the issue.

Undocumented mothers lost Medicaid coverage for prenatal care in 2010. A bill (LB599) passed last year clarified that unborn children do not have immigration status and therefore are not within the scope of state law that disallows public benefits to anyone in the country illegally.

LB599 was vetoed by Gov. Dave Heineman, but senators voted 30-16 to override the veto.

"I am concerned that when we allow these state benefits at public expense, we reward illegal behavior and divert limited resources from necessary services for legal residents," Janssen said.

None of Nebraska's border states provide this benefit, he said.

"We are now, in effect, a sanctuary for illegal immigrants."

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist told Janssen 14 states do allow their State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to cover prenatal care for undocumented mothers, and five more, including Iowa, are considering it this session.

Krist said he takes offense to people making immigration, illegal or not, a campaign issue.

He said the committee usually waits at least a day after a hearing to decide a bill's fate.

"If I had my way, I'd (kill) this thing when you walked out the door," Krist said. "I just want to tell you how strongly I feel about it."

Vivianne Chaumont, director of the Nebraska Health and Human Services division of Medicaid and long-term care, supported repeal of LB599. It would save $2.1 million in 2013-14 and $2.8 million the year after, the majority in federal funds, according to a fiscal note attached to the bill.

Chaumont said that during the time undocumented women did not get prenatal care, the data showed babies born in emergency rooms actually were less expensive than those born to mothers who were Medicaid-eligible.

"You cannot assume that a Medicaid-covered woman is getting prenatal care and you cannot assume that a woman who is not covered is not getting prenatal care," she said. "A lot of people pay for their prenatal care."

Susan Gumm, who introduced herself as a Nebraska taxpayer, said an "illegal alien" woman who can't afford prenatal care will most likely bring her child into a life of poverty, dependent on government services.

"The issue of prenatal care for illegal alien women is about money, not bias or discrimination," she said.

Dr. Kristine McVea, chief medical officer of the One World Community Health Center, opposed the bill, saying babies born to mothers who did not receive prenatal care are five times more likely to die and three times more likely to be born prematurely.

One infant who was born prematurely in her clinic and died before they could get the mother to the hospital could have been saved by a $10 antibiotic prescription, had the mother sought care in time.

"Infant deaths, disability, higher costs. That was the reality of Nebraska for nearly two years without prenatal care for the unborn," she said. "The good news is you fixed this" by restoring prenatal care in the last session.

Julie Schmit-Albin, director of Nebraska Right to Life, also opposed Janssen's effort to repeal LB599. Schmit-Albin said even the bill's heading, "to eliminate prenatal care for certain children" spoke to the idea that some unborn babies are more deserving of prenatal care than others.

"As we have with prior legislation on this topic, we soundly reject the premise that Nebraska should be picking and choosing which babies deserve care and which babies don't, by virtue of the legal status of their mothers," she said.

Shirl A. Mora James, a Lincoln civil rights and immigration attorney, said no mother, whether she has lawful status or not, should have to ponder the possibility of aborting her wanted, unborn baby because she cannot afford prenatal care.

"I ask you all to consider this truth: These are U.S. citizen babies, and their mothers are part of our human family and must be treated as such," she said.

James called out Janssen and other politicians who attempt to dehumanize the babies of undocumented mothers by calling them anchor babies or by denying them prenatal care "for their own political, pathetic gain."

"Where in the world is your moral compass?" she asked Janssen. "Stop and think. What would you do if these children were yours?"

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.

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