SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. — Over 30 years, the Women's Center at Regional West Medical Center, serving the state's vast Panhandle region, has delivered nearly 19,000 babies.
Dr. David Holdt, director of the center, said there's no question that proper prenatal care can dramatically reduce the chances of birth defects, complicated deliveries and expensive stays in neonatal intensive care units for prematurely born babies.
"Every dollar spent on that young mother will save $4 or more. I believe that," Holdt said.
That same care, he said, needs to be extended by taxpayers to low-income women who are in the country illegally.
"My belief is there's a little citizen developing in there, and we should be covering the cost of that care," Holdt said. "It's a no-brainer to me."
The physician was among dozens of medical professionals who met Thursday with five state senators during a tour of hospitals in Scottsbluff, Kearney and Grand Island to promote passage of a law to resume taxpayer-funded prenatal care in Nebraska.
Gov. Dave Heineman has promised to veto the bill, saying illegal immigrants should not get taxpayer-funded benefits.
"I have a very good sense where Nebraskans are at on this issue,'' Heineman said. "They tell me over and over 'I play by the rules, I pay taxes, and you're going to use my tax dollars for illegals?' That's the issue.''
Heineman's veto pledge sets up high drama for Wednesday, the final day of the 2012 session of the Nebraska Legislature, when lawmakers will attempt to override the expected veto — a step that will require support from 30 of the 49 state senators.
State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, speaker of the Legislature, organized the media blitz in an attempt, he said, to provide the other side of the story.
Flood, a leading pro-live legislator, and his colleagues said that they have voted for bills to get tough on illegal immigrants but that Legislative Bill 599 is different.
"If life begins at conception, let's use our pro-life stance and fight for babies who find themselves in this situation," he said.
The bill will save taxpayer dollars, the lawmakers said, by avoiding expensive and lifelong health problems caused by the lack of prenatal care for babies who qualify for taxpayer-funded health care at birth.
"That baby will be one of us, it will be a United States citizen and it deserves all the rights that we have," said Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege. "We're never wrong if we do the right thing."
The tour — an unusual move by state senators in advance of an override vote — brought an immediate response from the Nebraska Republican Party, the party of all five lawmakers on the tour.
The GOP hastily commissioned an automated telephone poll Wednesday night of about 1,100 people in the same cities visited by the senators.
It found that 78 percent of respondents opposed "taxpayer-funded prenatal health benefits for illegal immigrants."
"We felt it was important that the actual voice of the taxpayers was heard," said Jordan McGrain of the state GOP.
Even on the tour, it wasn't hard to find others who disagreed with the lawmakers.
"Personally, I don't think you should give a benefit for someone here illegally," Lois Knox of Alda said as she snacked in the cafeteria at St. Francis Medical Center in Grand Island. "I don't think the child should become a citizen (automatically) either. That should be repealed too."
The GOP poll was downplayed by senators on the trip, which also included Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, Mike Gloor of Grand Island and Greg Adams of York.
They said emails and phone calls they've been receiving have been mostly supportive of LB 599 — as much as 70 percent supportive — and that the wording of polls can alter the results.
Another poll, commissioned by supporters of the prenatal bill in late March, used the words "unborn babies" to describe who would be affected. It found 47 percent of respondents "strongly favored" LB 599 and 22 percent "somewhat favored" the bill.
Flood said he probably would have answered "no" to the GOP poll too, because of its wording.
Gloor, a former hospital administrator, said opponents, when presented information about the cost savings of prenatal care, seem to understand why he's a supporter.
Said Flood: "You really have to dig down deep to uncover the real issue here: This is a child."
Over and over during stops at the neonatal intensive care units, medical professionals spoke of the benefits of prenatal care, and the sad consequences of the end of taxpayer-funded care two years ago.
At Kearney's Good Samaritan Hospital, six women have delivered babies during that period without any prenatal care, which typically costs $1,500 to $2,000 per child.
In those cases, the intensive care bills — which are paid by taxpayers and the hospital — ranged from $12,000 to $31,500, said Dr. Ken Shaffer.
"It's a significant expense, and it takes only one baby ending up on a ventilator to raise that cost to hundreds of thousands of dollars," Shaffer said.
The doctor said even an inexpensive vitamin, folic acid, can significantly reduce the chances that a baby will be born with spina bifida, some congenital heart diseases and even a cleft lip or cleft palate.
Shaffer said private clinics in Kearney have not provided charity prenatal care, fearing they will be overwhelmed with cases. That has forced women to seek help at the closest health clinic that offers prenatal care — in Columbus, 106 miles away.
The Good Neighbor Community Health Center there has seen its caseload of pregnant women jump from 169 to 369 over two years. It has reduced mental health care and other services to handle the deluge of prenatal cases.
At St. Francis Health Center, more women are coming in who have had only four or five prenatal checkups rather than the recommended eight to 12. In Columbus, about two-thirds of prenatal patients are waiting past the first trimester to get an initial checkup, which is sometimes too late to prevent health problems.
Charities and private clinics simply cannot keep up with the demand, officials said.
"This issue really defines us as Nebraskans," said the Rev. Mike McDermott at the Grand Island hospital, "and how we take care of the common good."
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