February 24, 1998 in Nation/World

Lawmakers Won’t Cut Off Health Care For Poor Kids Panel Restores State Share Of Safety Net Program

Bob Fick Associated Press
 

A special health-care program for children of poor working families got a stay of execution Monday, thanks to a legislative budget committee.

The decision to fund the program came less than a week after lawmakers had voted to kill its funding.

“I don’t think anybody is against providing health care for children,” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted 17-3 to restore state matching funds to $7 million in federal money to care for thousands of sick children. But the committee remained undecided whether to rein in coverage of the program to assure it does not become a financial burden to the state.

“It is our responsibility to make sure that taxpayer dollars are spent properly,” said Cameron, one of the 12 budget writers who voted to temporarily terminate the program last week. “It is our responsibility to make sure that no matter how popular a program is, it has proper controls.”

The insurance program is aimed at helping about 12,000 children in families with incomes up to 60 percent more than the federal poverty level. Some budget writers want to reduce that to about 8,000 children in families with incomes up to 33 percent above the poverty line. That would be a temporary move allowing the state to get a better idea of demand and costs.

State Health and Welfare Department officials estimate an average of $1,361 is spent on each sick child enrolled in the program.

The panel stirred up a hornet’s nest with last week’s decision. That vote seemed prompted by Gov. Phil Batt’s failure to seek lawmakers’ formal approval before initiating a health care program last October, using savings from welfare reform efforts.

Batt quickly met with legislative leaders and outlined his concern that the action would mean foregoing $16 million a year in federal money to provide medical services to children of low-wage families, just not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. To get the money, the state only had to put up just over $4 million a year - cash easily generated from the dramatic decline in welfare caseloads.

To take full advantage of the federal money, the governor implemented the plan as quickly as possible by simply expanding Medicaid coverage to over 13,000 children previously ineligible. But he also planned a special task force to assess the entire process this spring to determine the most efficient way to disperse the money for the remaining nine years of the federal support.

The administration has tried to make it clear to lawmakers that the state’s responsibility does not end when a family drops off the welfare roles. It has emphasized that subsidized child care, health care and other services are needed to support families whose only income is from low- or minimum-wage jobs that offer no leeway for emergencies or huge expenses.

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