The Nebraska Legislature pulled a surprise Tuesday evening in resurrecting Legislative Bill 599, which would restore prenatal care to low-income women, even if they are not U.S. citizens.
It is compassionate, yes, but also the dollar-wise thing to do for the future of an estimated 1,162 unborn children a year — future citizens of the United States and Nebraska.
It's unfortunate that this bill is caught in the political whirlwind that surrounds the federal government's failure to deal with illegal immigration, a much broader issue than prenatal care.
Such care reduces the likelihood of low birth weight or premature delivery, which can cause congenital disabilities and infant mortality. Many serious diseases and conditions can be detected in the womb and treated or cured. Prenatal care has benefits all through infancy and childhood, giving a newborn a better chance to develop normally both mentally and physically.
Prenatal services ultimately can save the state money. The instant a child is born, even to a mother who's in the country illegally, the child becomes a citizen of the United States and eligible for medical care. Making sure that the child is born healthy and at a normal weight can reduce expenditures for high-cost neonatal care and potential long-term treatment.
A group of Omaha-area physicians, who supported a previous bill in 2010, said then that prenatal care cost about $800 and hospitalization for a healthy newborn was about $600. But the cost of care ran about $15,100 for hospitalization of a premature or low-birth-weight newborn, while newborns in the womb less than 28 weeks racked up bills of about $65,000. For premature infants with respiratory distress syndrome, a common complication, hospitalization costs soared to about $83,000.
One example was cited by State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln. She said lack of prenatal care for one immigrant mother turned into a bill for $800,000 for the child, paid by the taxpayers. That one case, Campbell said, cost more than the entire estimated state expense for LB 599, which would be about $650,000 a year. Federal funds for the program would total about $1.9 million annually.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says studies have estimated that every dollar spent on prenatal care saves between $1.70 and $3.38 by reducing complications in newborns. "The savings increase dramatically," the report said, "when the long-term costs of caring for newborns with physical and developmental disabilities are considered."
LB 599 also would restrict the program to the unborn children of low-income mothers who are ineligible for coverage under Medicaid. The mothers wouldn't receive any medical services not related to pregnancy.
Gov. Dave Heineman, a strong opponent of illegal immigration, used the approval of LB 599 to voice his displeasure with Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, a supporter of the bill. Heineman asks why money that would go to the unborn babies of illegal immigrants shouldn't be used instead for increased state aid to education. Flood said that newborns shouldn't be punished for the actions — or immigration status — of their parents.
LB 599 now has advanced through two rounds of voting, and it had the backing of 30 senators initially. It has one round to go.
While rejecting this bill would have little impact on the illegal immigration problem, passing it would save both lives and taxpayer money. It's hard to argue with that kind of bottom line.