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Heineman opposes prenatal care plan; testimony on bill heard Thursday

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Gov. Dave Heineman
Gov. Dave Heineman (AP file)

Gov. Dave Heineman will oppose a prenatal care plan drafted by the Nebraska Legislature because it would provide taxpayer-funded benefits to illegal immigrants.

"After a careful and thoughtful review of the various aspects of this issue, we are opposed to illegal immigrants receiving taxpayer-funded benefits," Heineman said in a letter read Thursday at a public hearing on the prenatal care plan.

The governor's stand assures the plan will become embroiled in immigration politics and likely means the Legislature eventually will need 30 votes to overcome a governor's veto.

Now senators know his stand and have information on the issue so they can make a decision on the proposal, Sen. Tim Gay, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said after a three-hour public hearing on the bill (LB1110). Senators took no immediate action.

The proposal re-establishes a more than 20-year-old program providing prenatal care to all unborn babies if their mothers are low-income.

Late last year, the federal government said Nebraska could not provide care through Medicaid to pregnant women who are in the U.S. illegally, but could re-establish the state's traditional program for all unborn children using a different source of federal funds, called SCHIP.

More than 1,540 women -- about 25 percent of the pregnant women eligible for services in February -- lost Medicaid benefits this month under the stricter definitions. About 840 were illegal immigrants who lost benefits under traditional Medicaid rules, and 700 were U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. Many of these women would receive care under the legislative plan, introduced by Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln.

Caseworkers are working with an additional 115 women to determine eligibility, based on numbers from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Supporters and opponents of the prenatal care plan framed the issue from two different perspectives during the hearing.

n Care for unborn babies who will be U.S citizens and thus eligible for traditional Medicaid-funded care at birth.

n Care for pregnant mothers who are in the country illegally.

Supporters pointed to the financial and practical benefits of providing prenatal care to all low-income women and their unborn babies. Lack of prenatal care costs about $2,300 per child, when the hospital cost of low birth weight babies and other problems associated with lack of prenatal care is spread across the newborn population, said Dr. David Filipi, president of the Nebraska Medical Association.

Clichés accurately describe the situation, said Dr. Richard Raymond, former state chief medical officer.

"Pay me now or pay me later; penny-wise and pound foolish; the true soul of a society is judged by how it helps those who cannot help themselves.

"Nebraska taxpayers will lose in the end," he said.

Representatives of medical and social organizations including Nebraska Right to Life supported the measure during the hearing.

"We want to assure that innocent, unborn children will receive prenatal services, said Brenda Eller of David City, president of Nebraska Right to Life.

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The group's board voted unanimously to support the bill.

This is the right thing to do from a pro-life position, regardless of the immigration status, Eller said.

Even the governor's representative, Kerry Winterer, CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services, said he was not contesting the value of prenatal services.

"It's almost intuitive that prenatal care would contribute to the health of the mother and child."

The question, he said, is who should pay for it.

Opponents focused on the immigrant issue, contending that providing prenatal care to illegal immigrants encourages others to come to the state.

The idea that society is responsible for people who are breaking the law "is completely ridiculous and completely false," said Dimitrij Krynsky, who emigrated legally from Czechoslovakia about 30 years ago.

What the state should do is make sure these people do not find work here, do not find apartments here, he said. Nebraska should create an environment that will send them home, he said.

"The citizens I've been listening to are absolutely furious that taxpayer dollars are being abused and mismanaged," said Susan Smith of Nebraskans Advisory Group, which describes itself as concerned over the negative impact of illegal immigration.

Many of the supporters of the prenatal care plan are those who are making money off of what Smith called the illegal alien situation and are guaranteed medical payments, she said.

Smith was one of five opponents to the bill.

Both sides were passionate.

Dr. Kristine McVea, with Omaha's OneWorld Community Health Center, asked why the state "would waste our tax dollars or have babies die to make cheap political statements about immigration."

Omahan Joe Waszgis said people are "sick and tired" of illegal immigrants.

"Our kids can't get any insurance, yet we keep coddling these people," he said.

He suggested those who feel sorry for illegal immigrants sell everything they have, move to another country and "teach them how to read, write and speak English, then send them back and we will welcome them."

The Health and Human Services Committee has made the bill a priority, but it will still need a majority vote to get out of committee.

Reach Nancy Hicks at 473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com.

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Related to this story

On Feb. 4, about 5,800 pregnant women receiving Medicaid coverage for their unborn children were mailed letters saying their babies' coverage would end March 1. The state had learned recently it was covering unborn children in error, according to federal Medicaid eligibility guidelines.

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