The South Dakota House of Representatives approved a measure last Friday, Feb. 22, that provides prenatal care for illegal immigrants.
The measure now moves to the state Senate. We urge that body to approve the bill and also urge Gov. Dennis Daugaard to sign it when it reaches his desk.
Last week’s debate concerning this legislation seemed to bring out, in our opinion, both the best and the worst of state lawmakers. It also caused a bit of head butting among the predominately Republican House members.
Republican supporters said the measure is “pro-life,” and that it was worth providing important care for unborn children even if their parents happened to be illegal immigrants.
But other Republicans objected, saying the benefit to the infants was outweighed by concerns about encouraging illegal immigration and by the cost to taxpayers of providing that care.
We find those latter concerns to be a bit disconcerting. It is difficult to accept that some of our decision makers believe there are issues more important than the health of pregnant mothers and the babies they are carrying, no matter the circumstances.
Those lawmakers also are blindly ignoring the results of a study published in 2011 by South Dakota Kids Count and the Beacom School of Business at the University of South Dakota that explores health disparities and prenatal care.
We hope South Dakota has leaders in our state who are wise enough to realize that a healthy life begins before a baby is born and depends on the care during the nine months of pregnancy.
According to the National Women’s Health Information Center, “babies of mothers who do not get prenatal care are three times more likely to have low birth weight and five times more likely to die than those born to mothers who do get care” (“Prenatal care”, 2009). Among the South Dakota Department of Health’s many health objectives to meet by 2020 is to increase the proportion of women who receive prenatal care in the first trimester from 68.9 percent in 2008 to 75 percent by 2020 (SDDOH).
Do you want to see the state health department struggle to meet those goals? Do you want to see the stats regarding South Dakota women receiving prenatal care take a huge dip? We believe, if you have a good head on your shoulders, that you don’t. But that’s exactly what will happen if state lawmakers ultimately deny prenatal care services because of cost or women’s citizenship status.
All you have to do is take a look at what happened in Nebraska in recent years. That state disqualified low-income women from Medicaid coverage in 2010.
Last year, however, a contingent of Nebraska lawmakers fought to restore state-funded prenatal care services. It turned out to be one of the most emotionally charged debates for Nebraska lawmakers.
Gov. Dave Heineman opposed restoring the prenatal care. Senators narrowly overrode his veto and reinstated the benefit for low-income women, many of whom were illegal immigrants.
Six months after Nebraska restored prenatal care services, health clinics are reporting an uptick in the percentage of women seeking medical care in the crucial first trimester of pregnancy.
The percentage of pregnant woman who seek first-trimester care during their first visit to the OneWorld Community Health Center in Omaha has increased from an average of 78 percent before the coverage was available to 85 percent in the last four months of 2012.
That uptick in services to women and their unborn babies in Nebraska is under threat again. Sen. Charlie Janssen, of Fremont, NE, a vocal opponent of illegal immigration, has introduced a bill this year to repeal the law. And in his proposed two-year budget to lawmakers, Heineman recommends pulling $786,000 in yearly funding for the services.
The South Dakota Senate should work to avoid similar turmoil and approve the prenatal care legislation. No doubt legislators may hear arguments opposing such action. They’ll be told that allowing the benefits at public expense rewards illegal behavior and diverts money from services for legal residents.
That “public expense,” in our thinking, is worth it. Offering prenatal care to all low-income women is highly cost-effective.
The Kids Count study from 2011 notes: “As the population of racial and ethnic minorities continues to climb, efforts must be directed at closing the gap in health and health care. Early and adequate prenatal care is a relatively simple and cost-effective measure that allows the physician to monitor the growing fetus, provide support and advice on issues such as smoking cessation or proper nutrition to the mother, and educate the mother what she should expect.”
South Dakota, in making an effort to try to do everything it can to support all pregnant women, will be making a smart investment by approving this legislation.