A Bitter Pill for Md. Immigrants

By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

Seldom does a budget cut help cripple a child.

Yet when Maryland cut $7 million last year and eliminated health care coverage for some recent immigrants, surgery was canceled on Eelaaf Zahid's malformed hip. Now, as her family looks to the courts and other state programs for help, an outgrown medical device implanted in her hip three years ago protrudes from her small body. The Glen Burnie kindergartner walks with a limp.

In Hyattsville, Brayan Herrera, 7, is waiting to see a doctor. His mother, Martha, worries that the rashes and pain he experiences are signs that his rare blood disease has returned.

More than 3,000 children lost Medicaid coverage in July, an issue that has inspired a high-level policy debate among Maryland lawmakers, officials, lawyers and judges -- and a desperate struggle among the parents, all of them poor but legal immigrants, to navigate a complex patchwork of programs in search of care for their children.

A few families have filed suit, saying Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) discriminated when he chose to cut support for legal immigrants who have lived fewer than five years in the United States. The state's attorneys argue the federal government has stopped aiding these new arrivals.

Many jurisdictions -- including the District, Virginia and, until last summer, Maryland -- chose to keep them on the Medicaid rolls.

A ruling last week from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals will allow the children's attorneys to petition on a case-by-case basis to restore health care coverage while the matter awaits trial.

"I don't think the republic is going to crumble if the kids get medical care," Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. said in a hearing before the ruling.

Legal Aid attorney Regan Bailey, who is representing 13 immigrant children in the lawsuit, said she hopes a victory in the case would restore Medicaid coverage to all children who lost their benefits.

But until then, the families are left with a series of federal, state and local programs, each with differing eligibility rules and services.

Five-year-old Eelaaf, for instance, was set for surgery July 15 to remove the clip on her hip. But when she lost her coverage July 1, her parents had to apply under a state public health program. Seven months and two applications later, she has received approval for the $20,000 operation.

"We don't want to interrupt care, especially for a little girl like this," said Jill Bloom, a spokeswoman for Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. She said the hospital would schedule the surgery soon.

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