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U.S. Tightens Medicaid Rules For Babies of Illegal Aliens

By Robert Pear
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

Under a new federal policy, children born in the United States to illegal immigrants with low incomes will no longer be automatically entitled to health insurance through Medicaid, Bush administration officials said Thursday.

Doctors and hospitals said the policy change would make it more difficult for such infants, who are U.S. citizens, to obtain health care needed in the first year of life.

Illegal immigrants are generally barred from Medicaid, but can get coverage for treatment of emergency medical conditions, including labor and delivery. In the past, once a woman received emergency care under Medicaid for the birth of a baby, the child was deemed eligible for coverage as well, and states had to cover them for one year from the date of birth.

Under the new policy, an application must be filed for the child, and the parents must provide documents to prove the child’s citizenship.

The documentation requirements took effect in July, but some states have been slow to enforce them, and many doctors are only now becoming aware of the effects on newborns.

Obtaining such documents can take weeks or months in some states, doctors said. Moreover, they added, illegal immigrant parents may be reluctant to go to a state welfare office to file applications because they fear contact with government agencies that could report their presence to immigration authorities.

Administration officials said the change was necessary under their reading of a new law, the Deficit Reduction Act, signed by President Bush in February. The law did not mention newborns, but generally tightened documentation requirements because some lawmakers were concerned that immigrants were fraudulently claiming U.S. citizenship to get Medicaid.

Marilyn E. Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Medicaid program, said: “The federal government told us we have no latitude. All states must change their policies and practices. We will not be able to cover any services for the newborn until a Medicaid application is filed. That could be days, weeks or months after the child is born.”

About 4 million babies are born in the United States each year, and Medicaid pays for more than one-third of all births. The number involving illegal immigrant parents is unknown, but is likely to be in the tens of thousands, health experts said.

Dr. Jay E. Berkelhamer, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the policy “punishes babies who, according to the Constitution, are citizens because they were born here.”

Dr. Martin C. Michaels, a pediatrician in Dalton, Ga., said that continuous coverage in the first year of life was important because “newborns need care right from the start.”

“Some Americans may want to grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants, and others may want to send them home,” Michaels said. “But the children who are born here had no say in that debate.”

Under a 1984 law, which remains on the books, infants born to pregnant women on Medicaid are deemed eligible for Medicaid for one year.