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Public Statements

Prescription Drug and Medicare Improvement Act of 2003—Continued

Location: Washington, DC

I rise to urge my colleagues to defeat this amendment.

In proposing this amendment, Senator SESSIONS argues that the restoration of health benefits to legal immigrants has not been fully reviewed or discussed. he also argues that SCHIP and Medicaid provisions are welfare reform measures and therefore not germane to the prescription drug bill. The amendment also states that Congress deliberately limited benefits available to legal immigrants when it removed these benefits in 1996.

I respectfully disagree with all of these three assertions.

First of all, the Senate Finance Committee has already extensively reviewed this issue. In 2001, the Finance Committee held a series of hearings on health coverage for the uninsured, including legal immigrants. During the TANF reauthorization mark-up in June 2002, there was a full debate on the restoration of health benefits to legal immigrants, and the Immigrant Children's Health Improvement Act passed as an amendment by a vote of 12 to 9.
This year, during Finance Committee mark-up of the prescription drug bill, there was once again full debate on the restoration of health benefits to legal immigrants. Senator NICKLES offered an amendment to strike the immigrant children's health provision from the chairman's mark and that amendment failed by a vote of 8 to 13.

Second, I disagree with Senator SESSIONS' argument that Section 605 of the bill is not germane to Medicare prescription drug legislation. Every time this sort of provision comes to a vote, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle question the vehicle. When the immigrant child health provisions came up in committee last year, as part of the TANF reauthorization mark-up, Senator HATCH remarked that, "If we start playing with health care policy, this bill isn't going to go through." This year, Senator SESSIONS is saying that TANF reauthorization is the appropriate vehicle. I ask my colleagues on the other side of the aisle then—which one is the appropriate vehicle?

In fact, the restoration of health benefits to legal immigrants is also a major component of the effort to add a prescription drug benefit under Medicare. Senators GRASSLEY and BAUCUS realized this when they included this provision in the prescription drug mark as part of a compromise agreement that included both Senator KYL's undocumented aliens provision to reimburse hospitals for the cost of treating undocumented aliens and Senator GRAHAM's legal immigrants provision.

Finally, benefits to legal immigrants were cut in 1996 as a cost-saving measure, not as a matter of welfare reform.
Section 605 of the underlying bill is also consistent with other policies approved by President Bush. Last year, the President signed legislation restoring food stamp benefits for legal immigrant children. The immigrant child health provisions would make these same children eligible for Medicaid and SCHIP. In an interview with the Associated Press in May 2002, Tommy Thompson, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, stated that he had no "philosophical objection" to lifting the ban on providing health care benefits to legal immigrants.

Senator SESSIONS' amendment also has significant dire consequences for women and children, and could add costs to the Medicaid program, which I am certain that Senator SESSIONS did not intend. Current restrictions prevent thousands of legal immigrant children and pregnant women from getting the same access to preventive health care services that they would have if they were U.S. citizens. As a result of the restrictions, immigrant children have fewer opportunities to see a pediatrician and receive treatment before minor illnesses become serious and life-threatening. Families who are unable to get basic preventive care for their children have little choice but to turn to emergency rooms—the least cost-effective place to provide care—when their children become sick.
Similarly, without prenatal care, a woman may give birth to a baby with low-birth weight, placing the baby at risk and resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in neonatal intensive care costs.

Frankly, I am saddened that we must fight over a bipartisan, thoughtful and extensively reviewed provision that will protect the health of children who legally came to our country and had no control over the length of time they were legal immigrants. We must ensure that it is defeated.

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