Parental care for illegal moms sparks debate

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2003

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. When Monica became pregnant with her first child three years ago, she was thousands of miles away from her family in Mexico and terrified.

Luckily for Monica, a friend told her husband about the Sea Mar health clinic in Mount Vernon, where she discovered she was eligible for state-funded prenatal care. When her baby stopped moving during her ninth month, an ultrasound at the clinic reassured her.

For me it's very important, the baby's health,'' said Monica, now 26 and the mother of a healthy 2-year-old, trying out her newly acquired English. I didn't know how to take care when you come here, many people here help you.''

Prenatal care for illegal immigrants like Monica, who asked that her last name not be used, costs the state about $23 million a year. Republicans want to eliminate financial support for the program, saying taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for illegal immigrants' health care while services for citizens are being cut. Democrats say prenatal care is a smart investment, and they're fighting to keep it in the budget.

As lawmakers return to Olympia on Monday for a special budget session, the issue is one of the major disagreements separating the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-led House.

The truth is we only have so much money, and we want to allocate it first to U.S. citizens,'' said Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, the Senate budget-writer who led the charge to fill a $2.6 billion hole in the state's $24 billion budget without raising taxes.

You have to make choices. Not all choices are easy,'' Rossi said.

House Democrats want to impose taxes on candy and increase the state's liquor and cigarette taxes to avoid some of the Senate budget cuts.

Supporters of prenatal care point out that babies of illegal immigrants born in the United States will be legal citizens, entitled to state-funded health care if their families are poor. And, they say, treating sick babies costs much more than prenatal care.

We're basically saying to children who are our future: 'We don't care about what happens to you because your mom is not legally documented in the United States,''' said Judith Puzon, preventive health services director for Sea Mar Community Health Centers. The Sea Mar clinics in Western Washington served 1,723 pregnant women last year; 88 percent were illegal immigrants.

Common problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes can cause severe complications during pregnancy, even death or lifelong disability.

If we don't help them early, we're going to pay for it in school, we're going to pay for it in health care, we're going to pay for it everywhere,'' said Puzon.

But Rossi said he's skeptical about claims of windfall savings. He noted that Washington is one of only 12 states paying for prenatal care for illegal immigrants.

If it actually saved money, I bet you 38 other states would be doing this,'' Rossi said.

Washington's prenatal care system began with the state's Maternity Care Access Act of 1989, aimed at improving maternal health and decreasing infant deaths by expanding health care coverage for pregnant women.

It worked, according to a study by the Department of Social and Health Services. Infant mortality for babies of women newly eligible for government-funded care decreased by more than 60 percent between 1989 and 1994. Statewide, Infant mortality decreased 30 percent over the same time.

Dr. John Moyer, an obstetrician and former Republican state senator from Spokane, witnessed the changes. He has worked for 18 years at the Columbia Basin Clinic in Othello, where most of the patients are Hispanic and many are illegal immigrants.

He remembers when expecting mothers would enter the clinic for the first time in labor. Many had complications such as high blood pressure or untreated infections, and some died.

Now people make appointments, they come in, and we take care of them on a regular basis,'' Moyer said. It has made a tremendous difference.''

The clinic patients in Othello aren't freeloaders, Moyer said: They don't come up just for medical care, they come up to pick crops.''

In Mount Vernon, Monica waits for the Legislature's decision. Her baby, Carolina, is looking forward to a pinata and presents for her third birthday next month. Monica would like a second child, but she doesn't think her family can afford the medical bills without state help. Her husband works at an egg farm that offers employee health insurance, but Monica said they can't spare $100 a month for premiums.

Whether Carolina gets a little brother or sister will depend on whether lawmakers decide Washington taxpayers can afford prenatal care for illegal immigrants like her mother.

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