Montgomery County officials took aim at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday for making budget cuts that will cause hundreds of legal immigrants in Maryland to lose their taxpayer-subsidized health insurance next month.

As part of a broader effort to curb Medicaid costs, Ehrlich (R) in January proposed eliminating $7 million in funding for coverage of pregnant women and children classified as permanent legal residents for fewer than five years.

Under the state constitution, the legislature may not add to the governor's proposal. But lawmakers set aside $1.5 million in the budget that Ehrlich can use at his discretion to continue prenatal coverage for pregnant women. His budget secretary said yesterday that Ehrlich has not yet decided whether to spend that money.

"It is unconscionable that you would even consider ending state support for pregnant women and children," said a letter signed by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and two Democratic County Council members, Tom Perez (Silver Spring) and George L. Leventhal (At Large). "The social safety net in Maryland has already been frayed by your administration, and this action seeks to tear it apart entirely."

The letter said 1,300 children and 300 pregnant women in Montgomery County alone stand to lose coverage. Duncan, who is gearing up to run for governor next year, has actively been seeking issues that provide a contrast between his priorities and those of Ehrlich.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said cuts in Medicaid programs were among "many decisions that are made to ensure fiscal responsibility in an area that is under serious strains every year."

He noted that Ehrlich had proposed an overall increase in the state Medicaid budget of 9 percent and that those affected by the cuts still would be eligible to receive emergency room care.

A legislative analysis prepared during the General Assembly session estimated that the full $7 million cut would encompass prenatal care and care for newborns and would affect 4,000 people statewide. Labor and delivery charges would be covered by Medicaid even if the $1.5 million were not spent.

Maryland, like other states, has been under growing pressure to curb its Medicaid budget. Medicaid accounts for about one-fifth of the state's general fund budget, according to legislative analysts, and is expected to grow far faster than anticipated revenue in coming years.

Ehrlich's proposal in effect sought to bring Maryland into line with federal rules. Since 1996, when Congress changed welfare, the federal government has not provided its share of Medicaid funding for legal immigrants until five years after they achieve that classification.

Maryland, however, has provided full funding for those individuals as part of the federal-state program.

The $1.5 million the legislature earmarked for coverage of pregnant women is one of the instances in which lawmakers "fenced off" funding for Ehrlich's use in the budget that takes effect July 1. Administration officials said last week that they had chosen not to use several other earmarks, including one to continue a schools grants program.

Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Ehrlich's budget secretary, said yesterday that "there have been discussions, but decisions have not been made" regarding the $1.5 million for pregnant women.