Conn. high court hears immigrant-benefits case

A lawyer for 4,800 legal immigrants in Connecticut urged the state's highest court Tuesday to strike down a state law aimed at taking away taxpayer-funded medical benefits from their impoverished clients.

The case follows similar legal fights in other states where courts have ruled that it is unconstitutional under equal protection rights to deny Medicaid coverage to legal immigrants while providing the coverage to citizens with similar health and economic problems.

The Connecticut Supreme Court didn't immediately rule on the matter Tuesday. A decision could take months.

The legal issues stem from Congress' 1996 welfare overhaul, which barred legal immigrants from receiving Medicaid, with an exception for emergency care, until they had lived in the country five years.

Connecticut and many other states responded by funding medical benefits to legal immigrants who had been in the country for less than five years. In recent years, however, some of those states have tried to cut such programs to save money amid growing budget shortfalls.

Connecticut's law, which was approved last year, was designed to save about $9 million as the state faced a multibillion-dollar deficit. It was supposed to take effect late last year, but a Hartford Superior Court judge ruled in December 2009 that it violated the immigrants' constitutional rights. The state appealed.

The state has continued to provide the Medicaid benefits to the legal immigrants during the legal wrangling.

Nicholas Yorio, an attorney for Greater Hartford Legal Aid who is representing legal immigrants statewide in the court case, said the health care benefits are vital to his clients for prescription drugs, medical exams and other necessities. His clients are all poor. Some are elderly, some are disabled and some are parents of needy children.

"Absent this medical coverage, they'll be unable to obtain coverage for many needed medical things," Yorio said before the hearing. "They're legally residing here. They're funding the programs with their taxes."

Yorio said his clients shouldn't be discriminated against because of their immigration status.

State Assistant Attorney General Hugh Barber argued Tuesday that there is nothing unconstitutional about the state deciding to adhere to the five-year waiting period in federal law.

"Just because the legislature established this program then repealed it ... that's not discrimination," Barber said after the hearing.

But Yorio told the justices that the case was about one fact: "The defendant is providing a benefit to similarly situated citizens that it's denying to similarly situated aliens."

The main plaintiff in the Connecticut case, Hong Pham, is a legal immigrant in her early 30s from Vietnam and is a divorced mother of a 2-year-old boy who lives on welfare and food stamps.

"My state medical assistance has paid for the medical care I need," she said in an affidavit in the court case. "I have severe headaches and a painful nose condition that has not gotten better. Sometimes the headaches are so bad that I can't see."

She also said she needs regular medical checks for hepatitis B.

A similar lawsuit is pending in New Jersey, where an estimated 12,000 legal permanent residents are no longer eligible for FamilyCare, a public health program for the poor.

In 2001, New York's highest court ruled that the state must start providing Medicaid to thousands of legal immigrants, saying the state's denial of the benefits since 1996 was unconstitutional and violated state and federal guarantees of equal protection. State officials said complying with the ruling would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

In 2006, Maryland health officials restored medical benefits to poor legal immigrant children and pregnant women following a court ruling. Then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration had removed almost 3,000 people from the Medicaid rolls to save $7 million.

Yorio noted that some courts have ruled against immigrants in similar cases, citing a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling and a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling about Colorado.

In 2004, nearly half of states provided publicly funded medical coverage to legal immigrants who didn't qualify for Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program, according to a study sponsored by the Kaiser Commission on the Uninsured.

But the study was before the recession. It's not clear exactly how many states still provide medical benefits to legal immigrants.

Yorio said legal immigrants have become political targets as states seek to cut their budgets.

"The plaintiff class is one that can't vote," he said. "As a result, they're shut out of the process."