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Washington state suing over kids’ health care

Gov. Chris Gregoire speaks  Monday at the Capitol in Olympia. 
 (Rich Roesler / The Spokesman-Review)
Gov. Chris Gregoire speaks Monday at the Capitol in Olympia. (Rich Roesler / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Saying the federal government is acting as a “roadblock” to Washington’s efforts to provide health coverage for more children, Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday that she and three other governors will seek a federal injunction to allow thousands of middle-income children to get coverage by the end of the decade.

“I’m not one who believes in a bunch of lawsuits,” Gregoire said Monday at the Capitol. But she said an August ruling by the federal Health and Human Services Administration would make it impossible for the state to offer coverage to children in families earning up to 300 percent of the poverty level in 2009.

The policy, announced in a letter to state officials Aug. 17, “has left us with no choice, we think, but that we have to turn to the courts,” the governor said. Joining Washington will be New York, Maryland and Illinois, she said.

The clash involves the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP. Paid for largely by the federal government, it was set up a decade ago to allow states to develop health care coverage for kids. This spring, Gregoire signed into law Sen. Chris Marr’s bill to allow families earning up to 300 percent of poverty level – for a family of four, that’s $61,950 a year – to sign their kids up for state health coverage if they pay the cost.

But the new policy makes that impossible, Gregoire said. For one thing, Health and Human Services is now requiring that a state cover at least 95 percent of all children below 200 percent of poverty level before expanding the program. No state has ever achieved that, Gregoire said. Vermont, at 92 percent, is the best in the country.

Also, she blasted the new federal requirement that kids go without coverage for a year before the state could sign them up. That means that newborns might not get critical health care, she said.

In Idaho, the program is far more modest than what Washington’s trying to do. Idaho offers coverage only to families earning up to 185 percent of the poverty level.

In August, Gregoire and 29 other governors protested the changes announced in the Aug. 17 letter from Health and Human Services.

“This is not a political issue,” Gregoire said. “This is an issue of getting children health care.”

It’s cheaper for taxpayers to cover children before their illnesses or injuries become crises, said Robin Arnold-Williams, secretary of Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services.

“They do get sick. They do show up in emergency rooms,” Arnold-Williams said. “And we all pay the cost of that.”

In recent months, the future of the SCHIP program has caused a tug of war between President Bush and Democrats in Congress. Bush is threatening to veto what he recently labeled an “irresponsible” congressional push to “dramatically expand this program beyond its original intent.” Congress has approved a bipartisan bill that would add $35 billion over five years to the program – enough to add 3 million to 4 million more children to the 6.6 million already covered.

Specifically, administration officials say, the president fears that middle-income families who already have insurance will abandon it for cheaper government coverage. (Gregoire says that Washington’s plan has safeguards to avoid that.)

Last week, the sole congressional vote against a bill to dramatically expand the program was U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who blasted what he called a Democrat-led effort to set up “a Canadian-style government-run health care system.”

For now, the issue’s stuck in a stalemate: Congress wants to expand the coverage but is 25 House votes short of overriding Bush’s threatened veto.

“Twenty-five is a difficult number to get to, so we are not optimistic,” Gregoire said.

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