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Legislators' dilemma alleviated on prenatal care to illegal immigrants

The Nebraska Legislature is a remarkable institution. That's not only because of its uniqueness as the sole unicameral among all the states, or the fact it makes both public policy and history on a regular basis.
It's also because it assembles 49 elected citizen-legislators and facilitates and coordinates much of their public-service, encompassing their personalities, principles, ideas, political concerns and judgments. It is more than a process; it's the unique sum of unique parts. It has its own existence, role and influence.
The role and influence of the Legislature as institution were on display recently. It happened on the controversial and emotionally charged issue of reinstating government-supported prenatal care services for unborn children of impoverished families, regardless of the mother's federal immigration status.
After 30 years or more of having such a policy, relying upon the federally established Medicaid program, Nebraska was suddenly told by federal officials its policy is not permitted and no longer qualified to receive federal funding. The reason? Medicaid has never recognized the unborn child as the recipient of benefits in his or her own right, as a separate individual. What's more, if the unborn child's mother is an unauthorized immigrant, she is ineligible.
What followed has been documented by generally good reporting and numerous editorials. Once it became definite that administrative action to overcome this "surprise" development was not going to be implemented, even though it was possible to do so, enough legislators cast a procedural vote to suspend the Legislature's rules to allow for late introduction of remedial legislation.
LB1110 proposed to reinstate prenatal care services for all unborn children of impoverished mothers using the specific unborn-child option of another federal program, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). What's more, due to its higher federal-funding share, exercising this option likely would have meant continuation of the policy at less cost than had been the case. The CHIP unborn-child option also offered obvious cost savings from the preventive effects of prenatal care services on the longer-term health and well-being of the babies, who, once born, become eligible for health care coverage under Medicaid.
After a public hearing, the Health and Human Services Committee voted 6-1 to advance LB1110 to the full Legislature and designated it as a priority bill.

Unless something unexpected and dramatic takes place in the final eight days of the session, the report on LB 1110 will be that it never had much chance for enactment, at least in a thorough, logical version that would do the most good for at-risk unborn children.
For one thing, once the bill "reached the floor," Gov. Dave Heineman's opposition to providing governmentally-funded prenatal care services for unborn children of "illegals" was firmly set, imposing a dark cloud over the prospects. Correspondingly, the political winds of "the immigration issue" blew chilly throughout the legislative chamber.
In its full form, LB 1110 never had a vote. The issues at stake, such as the health and well-being of children in utero, the social, health and fiscal repercussions of not having access to prenatal care services; and the separate, individual existence of unborn children, never had a thorough debate on its own substance. This is where the institution of the Legislature had an impact.
Legislative leadership, including the speaker, the chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee and the state senator who introducted LB1110, assessed the voting sentiments of their colleagues and concluded there were not enough votes to invoke cloture on a filibuster (33), to override an anticipated veto by the governor (30) or even to advance and pass the bill (25). Their assessment led to a decision to withdraw LB 1110 from further consideration.
Apparently, for the sake of the institution, it was deemed better not to debate and vote on LB1110, regardless of the outcome, then to have debate and a vote that would put legislators on record on a highly contentious and politically divisive matter, one involving in one way or another, whether logical and appropriate or not, both pro-life and immigration issues. In essence, the institution protected its members.
Numerous legislators, including several whose religious affiliation is known to be Catholic, undoubtedly welcomed and appreciated the quiet demise of LB1110. Otherwise, they would have faced a real dilemma in casting a vote (or perhaps abstaining) that would have pitted fundamental pro-life principles against the real or imagined political consequences of appearing to be soft on the federal issue of illegal immigration.
The collective exhale of relief surely must have been detectible throughout the capitol.

Jim Cunningham is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln.

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