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Legal immigrants could lose out on care

‘This is exactly the behavior that has gotten Massachusetts into the mess we’re in.’ ‘This is exactly the behavior that has gotten Massachusetts into the mess we’re in.’ (Jessica Hill/Associated Press/File)
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / June 25, 2010

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Just a year after a prolonged political battle to retain their health care benefits, more than 20,000 of the state’s legal immigrants may lose them again.

Health care and immigrant advocacy groups, getting their first look at the Legislature’s final budget plan yesterday, said they were deeply concerned that lawmakers relegated $56 million for immigrant health care to a provisional section of the state budget with funding that appears very much in doubt.

It is unclear whether Governor Deval Patrick, who battled the Legislature last year to preserve stripped-down coverage for legal immigrants, will fight for the issue again this year when the budget reaches his desk. His budget director, Jay Gonzalez, was noncommittal in a brief statement released yesterday.

The move by lawmakers to slash immigrants’ health care in next year’s spending plan was one of several decisions drawing a political backlash yesterday. The budget set off an immediate round robin of criticism among the three major candidates. Both the House and Senate passed the budget last night.

Republicans accused Patrick, Democrats in the Legislature, and state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, an independent candidate for governor, of mismanaging the state’s finances and resisting overhauls that they say could have prevented steep cuts in social programs.

Republican rival Charles D. Baker, who was state budget chief in the 1990s, was particularly critical of Patrick and the Legislature for depending on nearly $700 million in federal stimulus money that has not passed Congress and is looking more doubtful by the day.

“This is exactly the behavior that has gotten Massachusetts into the mess we’re in, and it’s only going to get worse unless we get serious about cutting spending and reforming the way we do business,’’ Baker said in a statement.

The US Senate failed again last night, by a 57-41 vote, to advance a package of tax cuts and emergency economic provisions that would provide needed aid to state governments like that in Massachusetts. US Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, dismissed further negotiations, saying Republican compromise was needed.

Patrick and top legislators have said that in the past they were given strong signs from the federal government that the money would be approved and were joined by about 30 other states in building their budgets around those assumptions.

Patrick’s campaign leveled its own critique of Baker and Cahill, accusing them of acting irresponsibly in proposing $2 billion in tax cuts without specifying what spending cuts they would make in return.

“The fact is they cannot cut an additional $2 billion plus from an already difficult state budget without dramatic cuts to schools, higher property taxes, and a negative impact on economic development and job growth,’’ he said.

Cahill reiterated that he has no direct control over the budget and promised to usher in more fiscal responsibility if elected governor. He blamed Patrick for submitting past budgets that included money the state did not have. He said tax cuts might hurt state workers, but would ultimately leave the state with more money because of a growing economy.

“How much can we feed the beast?’’ he said. “The governor would tax people back to the Stone Age.’’

The money to provide subsidized care to eligible legal immigrants is among the proposed budget casualties now that the $700 million in federal stimulus money appears unlikely to come through. US Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, has stood with the majority of his party in opposing the bill. He told State House News Service yesterday that Patrick had been warned the money would expire after a year and blamed him for presiding over “years of overspending.’’

But advocacy groups had hoped to persuade Brown to change his mind and provide a critical vote to break a filibuster. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition is planning a rally in front of his Boston office on Monday.

“It’s a step back from health reform,’’ said Brian Rosman, research director for the group Health Care for All. “Their health needs don’t go away just because they get eliminated from their health coverage.’’

The federal government does not reimburse the state for the immigrants, making the program serving those who have been here less than five years a prime target when legislators are looking to cut costs. Last year, they eliminated $130 million set aside for the program. After a battle with Patrick, they restored about a third of the money, giving about 26,000 immigrants a program with less care and significantly higher copayments for medication and treatment.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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