By Megha Rajagopalan
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - The Court of Appeals Thursday ruled that about 3,000 children and pregnant woman who are recent immigrants should keep receiving health care while a lower court decides whether it is constitutional for the state to cut off their Medicaid benefits.
Maryland's highest court also ruled, however, that a Montgomery County judge was wrong to force the state to pay medical bills retroactively as part of an injunction.
The immigrants, who are legal permanent residents, filed the lawsuit in 2005 after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's administration cut a program giving Medicaid coverage to about 3,000 children and pregnant women who were recent legal immigrants.
The move was made to save about $7 million in a Medicaid budget that usually totals about $4 billion, according to the decision.
A spokesman for Ehrlich deferred comment to the state's Department of Health and Human Services.
"Obviously, we're disappointed in the court's opinion," said Karen Black, a spokeswoman for the department.
Black said, however, the department is still reviewing the decision and could not speak on the state's further plans.
Lawyers for the immigrants lauded the unanimous decision in a statement.
"The Court of Appeals has essentially ruled that the State of Maryland cannot turn its back on the health care needs of Maryland's legal immigrant children," said Douglas M. Bregman, one of the lawyers who challenged Ehrlich's action.
Immigrant advocates also praised the decision.
"This is absolutely a victory for immigrants in Maryland," said Kim Propeack, a spokeswoman for Casa of Maryland, a Silver Spring-based advocacy group for Latinos. "When Governor Ehrlich made the decision to cut immigrant children from health care, he put many families in significant crises."
Propeack said many of the children have "expensive and constant" medical needs. In the statement, lawyers said two of their clients included a 16-year-old girl with the West Nile virus and a 7-year-old boy with cancer.
The Court of Appeals did not decide whether it was constitutional for Ehrlich's administration to cut the program. A lower court will later make that decision.
However, Court of Appeals judges said in the decision they agreed with immigrants that reducing costs was not enough justification to cut their health care. The program that gave Medicaid benefits to the children began in 1996. That year, the federal government cut health care funding for immigrants who had been in the U.S. for less than five years. Maryland created a similar program in response funded through state dollars.