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Cynthia Needham
By Cynthia Needham September 19, 2010

Palumbo says R.I. gives undocumented pregnant women free health insurance and hundreds of dollars for food and other expenses

On the hot-button issue of immigration, there are few figures as outspoken about Rhode Island's policies as state Rep. Peter Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston.

Two years ago, Palumbo released a set of figures he compiled estimating what undocumented immigrants cost the state each year, how many murders they commit and the strain they put on our health care system. The report was never substantiated, but Palumbo continues to cite these and other similar  figures.

Palumbo and Republican state Rep. Joseph Trillo, of Warwick -- who also supports stricter enforcement of immigration laws -- went to Arizona earlier this month to see for themselves the problems that the state is having with illegal immigration.  While there, they appeared together on Fox News' "On the Record With Greta Van Susteren" to discuss Rhode Island immigration policy.

Criticizing the state's social service programs, Palumbo said: "We have something called the anchor embryos. We have such liberal programs where we take care of you. If you're an illegal woman you get to Rhode Island, you go to the Department of Human Services, they give you either Neighborhood Health [Plan], United[Health] or Blue Cross. They give you a card with $400 a month on it and allow you to spend it on anything but food because, sit tight, we're going to give you another $250 a month or $275 a month to spend on food."

We asked Palumbo about his source for such exact dollar figures. He said he got each piece of information from Gary Alexander, the head of Rhode Island's Office of Health and Human Services, in a lengthy conversation they had about two years ago when Palumbo first became interested in the issue.

Alexander told us he recalls briefly discussing the topic of benefits for undocumented pregnant women with Palumbo at some point, but he said he never cited any of the specific figures that Palumbo lists, nor would he, because they're just not accurate.

 "I don't even know how he would get totals like $400 or $250," Alexander said.

Health care policy for undocumented pregnant women
So what do state and federal policies say about benefits for pregnant women who are in Rhode Island illegally?

First, they are eligible for health insurance under RIte Care, the state's health insurance program for low-income families, according to state officials.

And federal law dictates that they must be given a choice between providers, Alexander said. Until just a few weeks ago, those choices included Neighborhood Health Plan, UnitedHealthCare, or Blue Cross & Blue Shield. In August, Blue Cross announced it would no longer participate in the program.

Women who are pregnant are not required to declare their immigration status when enrolling in RIte Care, assuming they meet the income eligibility requirements.

The way Alexander and federal officials explain it, the rationale is this: because the child will be born in the United States, he or she will be an American citizen and therefore eligible for health benefits. Prenatal care is considered an extension of those benefits.

"It's not based on the mother, it's based on the child who will soon be a citizen. If we don't give [the mother] prenatal care, something could happen to the child," leading to even greater costs for the state, said Alexander, who was appointed by Governor Donald Carcieri, a Republican.

Even if the DHS did not offer health benefits, state law would still require hospitals to provide emergency care to anyone, Alexander added. The mother's health benefits end three months after delivery.

Palumbo is therefore correct on what he says about free health care.

Cash assistance policy
Next Palumbo says undocumented pregnant women get "a card with $400 a month on it" that they are "allow[ed] to spend [on] anything but food."

Sounds a bit like a state gift certificate to us, but Palumbo says he was referring to cash assistance welfare benefits. Again, he said Alexander told him that every undocumented pregnant woman who seeks state help gets $400 a month.

Not so, said the DHS secretary, who said he couldn't imagine where Palumbo could  have gotten such specific figures. Pregnant women who are in Rhode Island illegally are not eligible for welfare benefits and even if they were, how much they get would depend on their income, said OHHS Associate Director David Burnett.

Under the Bush-administration's Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, anyone seeking cash benefits or other federal assistance must provide identifying documentation proving their legal status, according to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

It's important to note that, as with healthcare benefits, once the child is born, as a citizen, he or she will be eligible for welfare benefits, which would presumably be delivered to the mother on behalf of the child. But the mother herself does not qualify for any subsidy. So Palumbo is incorrect to say pregnant women get welfare benefits.

Food stamps policy
The same is true for the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, more commonly known as the food stamp program.  Despite the figures Palumbo cites, undocumented pregnant women are not eligible for "$250 a month or $275 a month," or any other amount.

Under the federal Deficit Reduction Act, without proof of citizenship, they can't receive the benefit. Once born, their children will qualify to enroll in the SNAP program. According to the University of Rhode Island's Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America, the maximum is $200 a month per qualifying member. But the subsidy will not cover the mother.

Again, Palumbo is wrong.

Finally, there is a clear implication in Palumbo's statement that Rhode Island's benefits are more generous than those in other states. At one point in the Van Susteren interview, Palumbo suggested that undocumented pregnant women from elsewhere are "headed to our state" to take advantage of these programs.

Federal law now dictates that undocumented people -- pregnant or otherwise -- are not eligible for either welfare assistance or food stamps here, or anywhere.

By the same token, undocumented pregnant women in Rhode Island are eligible to receive health care benefits, but that is also true in some other states. While federal law won't cover undocumented people, in general, it gives states the option to use federal CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) to cover prenatal benefits.

To imply that Rhode Island is the only state where this is the case is not correct.

In all, two of the three facts Palumbo offered to Van Susteren were wrong. Worse, he cited as his source an official -- Gary Alexander -- who said he never said any of those specifics, in part because they are not true.

Palumbo used very exact numbers on national television and he stated them with the kind of confidence that could lead viewers to believe he had done his homework and knew what he was talking about.

He didn't and he doesn't, at least in two of three counts. We'll give him a Barely True.

Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

Rep. Peter Palumbo, comments on Fox News' On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, Sept. 9, 2010

Interview with Rep. Peter Palumbo, Sept. 15, 2010

Interview with Gary Alexander, Rhode Island secretary of the Office of Health and Human Services, Sept. 16, 2010

Interview and emails, David Burnett, OHHS associate director, Sept. 15-16, 2010

Interview, Donalda Carlson, administrator of child and family support services at the Department of Human Services, Sept. 15.

Interview, Mary Kahn, spokeswoman, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 2010

Commonwealth Fund report, "The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005: an overview of key medicaid provisions and their implications for early childhood development services," accessed, Sept. 17, 2010

Kaiser commission on Medicaid and the uninsured "Citizenship documentation requirements in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005: Lessons from New York," accessed Sept. 17, 2010

Interview, Kathleen Gorman, director of the University of Rhode Island's Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America, Sept. 17, 2010

Kaiser Family Foundation,, accessed Sept. 16, 2010

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