BETTY ANN BOWSER: Confined to a wheelchair because of a recent stroke, 70-year-old Valentin Soskin and his wife spend much of their time watching Russian television in their tiny Denver apartment. They came to this country from Chernobyl nine years ago. But because of difficulties learning English, have been unable to pass the citizenship exam. The Soskins are legal immigrants who depend on a monthly Medicaid check to pay their medical bills. But in March, the Colorado legislature voted to end Medicaid benefits for legal residents, and now Valentin says the little money he has will all have to go toward paying medical bills.
VALENTIN SOSKIN (Translated): I will not be able to pay my rent and I will not be able to buy food and other necessary things.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Soskin is not alone. Some 3,500 legal residents in Colorado will be affected. About one third are elderly suffering from illnesses like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's. Another third are children, and another thousand are pregnant women.
LORAZ MEINHOLD, Colorado Consumer Health Initiative: We are talking about the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable in the state. These are people that on average make below federal poverty level of standard. They have no assets. They have no reserves. They have-- very few times they have homes. I mean, these are people that really depend and rely on these services in order to live.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lorez Meinhold is the director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, an advocacy group for healthcare access. She says cutting Medicaid to these people means they won't be able to afford things like chemotherapy, prescription drugs, home healthcare, prenatal services and immunizations.
LORAZ MEINHOLD: For some of these people it is a question of life and death - of whether they will continue to be able to survive. People who have been at home won't be able to stay at home. I don't know who's necessarily going to want to pick up the cost for them. It means more people will end up in the emergency room. It means more people will have worse health outcomes because of this.
STATE SEN. DAVE OWEN: We don't like to do this, and some of our members agonized over these kind of decisions.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Republican State Senator Dave Owen, who chairs the budget committee, says no one enjoys cutting Medicaid, but every state in the nation is having to do it this year. He said Colorado's faltering economy has reduced state revenues by 18 percent. That means lawmakers have had to make some painful budget cuts to make up the $850 million shortfall.
STATE SEN. DAVE OWEN: We're spending more than we're taking in. It's just like your own checkbook. If you spend more money than what your organization pays you, then you have to quit spending. And that's exactly what we've done.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Colorado's Medicaid program is one of the leanest in the country. For example, it covers only 5 percent of the non-elderly population versus the national average of 12 percent. But Medicaid is the state's second largest expenditure, and covering legal residents is considered optional by the federal government. Eight other states don't offer Medicaid to legal residents. So Senator Owen says it had to be cut along with many other important programs, including money for higher education, libraries, childcare, and prescription drugs.
STATE SEN. DAVE OWEN: We're cutting into damaging muscles of every government program. Not only Medicaid. We've reduced our prison appropriations to such a point that I'm concerned about health and safety in our prisons. And every state program has... we've cut across the board. And you're absolutely correct. Colorado didn't have a lot of fat in their government, yet we're forced to cut the government. We have to have a balanced budget. And our constitution requires a balanced budget.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Medicaid cut will save the state $8 million a year, but Meinhold says ultimately those savings will be lost as people are forced to seek expensive emergency room care. Even Senator Owen admits the long-term consequences could be costly, but he said lawmakers had no other choice. Raising taxes in Colorado is virtually impossible, since any tax increase must be approved directly by voters. What angers Meinhold is that the state didn't take money from more powerful interest groups. She points to the fact that the state government appropriated $9 million to promote tourism, and refused to charge gun owners a fee to pay for background checks. Instead she says, it cut benefits for legal immigrants.
LORAZ MEINHOLD: There's less of a voice, an organized voice for immigrants. People who have been working hard, pay taxes, thought that the system would be there for them when they needed it when they fell on hard times, and it is proving not to be the case. And none of these people can actually vote and that somewhat makes them more of a likely political target than others.
STATE SEN. DAVE OWEN: That was not a consideration. There was no political consideration in this. It was basically a monetary, budget decision because we felt it had the least impact of the Medicaid served population.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The cuts would have been effective April 1, but the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Soskin and several other immigrants, saying that targeting a specific population violated the equal protection clause of the constitution. A federal district judge ruled in favor of the state, saying that although the cuts "would result in irreparable injury to many of the plaintiffs," the "effects on public interest" of not having a balanced budget, were greater. The ACLU has appealed that decision.