February 15, 2007 in City

State Senate OKs bill giving more kids health coverage

Richard Roesler Staff writer

For more statehouse news, read our Eye on Olympia blog at www.eyeonolympia.com.

OLYMPIA – Putting in place a keystone of Democrats’ legislative agenda this year, the state Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill to expand state-subsidized health coverage to tens of thousands more low- and middle-income children.

“This is why I came to Olympia,” said freshman Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, the prime sponsor of the proposal. Senate Bill 5093 passed, 38 to 9.

Marr said the changes – pending expected approval by the House and governor – would cover 32,000 of the estimated 73,000 Washington children without health coverage.

The measure drew strong criticism from several Republicans, who felt that it is too generous and would trigger tax increases within a couple of years.

Under the proposal, the state would subsidize the $150-a-month cost to insure children whose families earn 250 percent or less of the federal poverty level. That’s $50,000 for a family of four. Families earning up to 300 percent of the poverty level – now $60,000 for a family of four – would be allowed to buy coverage for their children starting in 2009.

Democratic leaders in both the Senate and House have made it a priority to try to cover all Washington children by 2010. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, on Wednesday called it “a moral imperative.”

The state estimates that 4.4 percent of children under 19 don’t have health insurance. A decade ago, that figure was 11.4 percent.

Republicans, far outnumbered in the Senate, repeatedly tried to narrow the scope of the proposal. Some predicted that some middle-income families who now insure their children through an employer’s health plan would abandon that to buy into the government plan. The state should limit itself, they said, to trying to cover children who now have no health insurance.

Among the amendments that Republicans tried: a four-month waiting period for people whose children already have health coverage.

“In other words, you can’t just today stop paying for your insurance because you want the cheap government insurance,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. All the GOP amendments failed.

But Brown said it’s hard to argue against letting those families buy state coverage.

“This is an option that may be more affordable for families,” she said. “And I have to ask you: What is wrong with that?” she said.

Zarelli predicted that the program would cost around $200 million over two years; Brown said that figure includes matching money from the federal government. The actual cost to the state, Brown said, would be about $36 million over the next two years.

Marr and other Democrats say that the current system is inefficient and expensive. Sick or injured children without health coverage tend to end up at the doctor of last resort – hospital emergency rooms – where crisis treatment is far more expensive than early treatment would have been.

“It’s like taking a limousine to the grocery store to get a quart of milk,” said Marr.

The bill approved Wednesday also asks all school districts to set up advisory committees on healthy food and physical activity, and sets low-fat and low-sugar goals. It also recommends that all students in grades one through eight get at least half an hour a day of physical education.

A House version of the bill is still working its way through committees, but House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said the proposal would be fast-tracked and could be sent to the governor as early as next week. Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign the bill into law.

“We’re very excited,” said Chopp. “This is really sweet for me.”

Gregoire spokesman Holly Armstrong said the governor is pleased to see the measure moving quickly through the statehouse.

“A top priority of hers is to get all kids covered by 2010,” said Armstrong.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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