The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that will restore MaineCare benefits to noncitizen immigrants and immigrant children, who would otherwise be ineligible under federal law.

The 7-4, party-line vote, with Democrats on the committee supporting the change and Republicans opposing it, came after only a short debate. Two lawmakers were absent for the vote but have 24 hours to weigh in on the measure.

Rep. Sam Zager, D-Portland, said he was supporting the bill because he knows it will save human lives.

“It’s akin to rescuing somebody drowning at sea or running into a burning building and saving them,” said Zager, who is also a physician. “This is one of those moments; that’s the way I see it, at least. It makes no difference to me whether that person who is drowning or is in a burning building is a citizen.”

But Republicans pushed back, saying state government already struggles to provide health care coverage and other critical services to Maine citizens and that adding noncitizen immigrants to state welfare programs would only make already long waiting lists even longer.

Nonresident immigrants are also eligible for emergency medical care and charity care, said Rep. Michael Lemelin, R-Chelsea.

“That’s why we have free clinics and that’s why hospitals have to give free care to those who are in the predicament we are talking about here,” Lemelin said. “So if any of these people were dying or had a serious condition, they could go to the hospital and get free care because this is America.”

But Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, said “free” care still costs money and that was reflected in the costs all health care consumers had to pay. “It is much less expensive for us to take care of people before they get to that point,” Perry said, “and we will be paying less ourselves by doing so.”

The bill, L.D. 718, sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, restores coverages for noncitizens under the state’s Medicaid system, MaineCare, that were removed under former Republican Gov. Paul LePage and a Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011.

The cost of the bill has not yet been established, but it could provide coverage for as many as 2,500 noncitizen residents, according to an analysis by the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Policy and Legal Analysis. The analysis also shows the state would have to fully cover the cost of the program, as federal law still prohibits nonresident immigrants from receiving Medicaid benefits.

Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, said she supported the bill because she knew it would help immigrant workers Maine needs, including those who hold jobs in fishing, farming and the state’s health care industries.

“I don’t know who we think is going to take care of our parents, our children, our people who are disabled or who is going to process the lobster, pick the blueberries or any of it unless we make Maine a place where people can earn a living and have access to health care,” Madigan said.

The bill will next move to the floors of the House and the Senate for final votes when the Legislature reconvenes in a special session later this month.

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