LINCOLN — Teary-eyed supporters predicted Wednesday that the Legislature's decision to restore taxpayer-funded prenatal care for illegal immigrants will result in fewer newborns with birth defects and fewer expenses for intensive care stays and delivery room complications.
“For the women, it means they won't have to worry anymore. They can come and get care,” said Andrea Skolkin of South Omaha's One World Community Health Center.
Lawmakers voted 30-16 to override Gov. Dave Heineman's veto of Legislative Bill 599.
The governor predicted that the 2012 legislative session will be remembered most for providing free health care for illegal residents while allowing cities to raise sales taxes on legal residents — referring to the lawmakers' override of another veto.
“I strongly disagree with their decisions,” Heineman said in a prepared statement. “Providing preferential treatment to illegals while increasing taxes on legal Nebraska citizens is misguided, misplaced and inappropriate.”
The vote on the prenatal care bill came at the end of the session's last day, providing an emotional finale to what has been a rough-and-tumble session.
“I like soft landings,” said State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, the speaker of the Legislature. “We had to foam the runways this year. But any landing you walk away from is a good landing.”
The 60-day session will be remembered for passage of bills that refocused the state's troubled child welfare system, funded a new cancer research center in Omaha and a nursing college in Kearney, and provided a slimmed-down package of individual income tax cuts, which one senator sarcastically called “the smallest in state history.”
The session's last three weeks provided a sometimes personal clash between lawmakers and the governor over the prenatal care bill, which mixed the hot-button issues of illegal immigration and protection of unborn children.
Heineman hammered lawmakers, particularly Flood, who supported restoring the prenatal care that the state had provided for three decades before it was cut off two years ago.
The governor and others said Nebraskans oppose using taxpayer funds for women living illegally in the United States, even if the prenatal care would ensure a healthier start for babies who automatically become U.S. citizens at birth.
Sen. John Nelson of Omaha said during floor debate Wednesday that immigrants have been getting free or reduced cost prenatal care through clinics like One World for the past two years and that churches and charities, not taxpayers, should continue to shoulder the cost.
“No one is being turned away,” Nelson said. “They've been finding a way.”
Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala said he worried that non-Nebraskans would flock to the state for free prenatal care — care that is provided by about 16 states, but none bordering Nebraska.
Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha said his constituents overwhelmingly oppose funding such care as they struggle to afford health insurance for themselves.
Supporters of LB 599 portrayed it as a “pro-life” bill, in which the tax investment in prenatal care would prevent more expensive tax-funded bills to deal with easily preventable birth defects and health complications.
“We have a choice, but we will pay,” said Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege. “That unborn baby is a person, is legal, is innocent and is defenseless. And that's why I'm supporting LB 599.”
A similar prenatal care bill was withdrawn from the agenda two years ago, lacking enough votes to pass. This year, a new estimate of the expected fiscal impact of providing the care placed the state's annual cost at about $560,000.
That was less than the cost to taxpayers and hospitals for just two cases of extended neonatal intensive care for babies born to women lacking prenatal care. One case cost more than $800,000.
Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, a leading supporter of LB 599, said charities and private donations cannot be counted on to finance the care.
Clinics in Omaha and Columbus reported dramatic increases in the number of women seeking free prenatal care, but also several cases of women skipping the care or coming in too late to address early developing problems in their babies. Health professionals have said that for every $1 invested in prenatal care, savings of up to $4 is expected.
“Fiscally, this makes sense,” Flood said. “This is an innocent child in the middle of a red-hot debate about immigration.”
Despite lobbying by Heineman and other foes of the bill, only one previous supporter — Sen. Tom Seiler of Hastings — switched from supporting the measure to opposing the override.
A gasp could be heard in the legislative chamber when the 30th vote — the minimum needed to override the veto — was cast. Tears filled the eyes of supporters like Skolkin, as they exchanged hugs outside the chamber.
Heineman warned of long-lasting political ramifications for senators who supported the overrides of the prenatal care bill and half-cent local-option sales tax measure.
Groups supporting the prenatal care override, including Nebraska Right to Life and the Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, praised the courage of senators who supported the bill.
“We are proud of the Legislature for deciding that no unborn baby should be denied prenatal care based upon the circumstances of how that baby comes into the world,” said Julie Schmit-Albin, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life.
LB 599 will go into effect in three months. It is projected to provide prenatal care for about 1,100 babies whose mothers meet low-income guidelines and demonstrate that they live in Nebraska. The projected cost is about $560,000 in state funds and $1.9 million in federal funds.
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