Children's insurance debate moves from Austin to D.C.
State leaders downplay immediate impact of impasse between Bush and Congress.
By Jason Embry
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
The battle over how much money Texas can spend on the Children's Health Insurance Program, a landmark issue at the state Capitol this year, has shifted to Washington.
State lawmakers decided this year to add more than 120,000 children to the program by restoring cutsthey made in 2003 during a budget crunch.
Now congressional leaders and the White House are at odds over how much federal money to put into the program, which combines state and federal dollars to provide health insurance for children whose families are considered poor but make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. The White House has threatened to veto legislation that substantially increases spending on the program.
"They're going to have those debates in D.C.; that's just the nature of D.C.," said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who pushed for the CHIP expansions this year. "But I think when the clouds clear, I think there will be a CHIP program, and this program will move right in line with that. So I'm not dissuaded at all."
Turner and other lawmakers gathered with Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday for a ceremonial signing of House Bill 109, the legislation that expanded CHIP coverage by easing enrollment restrictions enacted four years ago. It takes effect Sept. 1.
A spokeswoman for the state Health and Human Services Commission downplayed the immediate effect of the Washington debate on CHIP funding in Texas, even though the federal government pays 70 percent of the cost.
Stephanie Goodman said that states have three years to spend each year's federal CHIP budget and that Texas has spent less than its annual allotment the past three years.
"The state has a significant federal carry-forward balance that we can use to fund the HB 109 changes for the next two-year budget cycle," Goodman said. "A reduction in federal funds could become a problem for the state in future years."
Members of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee have proposed adding $35 billion to the program over the next five years with help from a 61-cent increase in the federal excise tax on a pack of cigarettes. That would come on top of the current spending of $25 billion.
But a White House spokesman said Saturday that senior administration advisers would push for a veto of such legislation, saying it would expand the program beyond its original intent of covering poor children and encourage many people to drop private plans for government-funded coverage. Bush wants $5 billion added to the program.
The debate over how much to put into the program comes as its Sept. 30 expiration nears. But Goodman said Congress typically makes sure that federal dollars keep flowing into a program until it decides what action to take.
Anne Dunkelberg of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based group that advocates more spending on programs to help low-income families, said CHIP spending increases in Washington are vital to keeping up with population growth and inflation and helping states cover eligible children. She said Bush's proposal jeopardizes the changes state leaders enacted.
"Texas probably needs it more than any other state," she said, citing a high number of children who qualify for the program but are uninsured.
But even if Washington increases funding significantly, don't expect a big jump in coverage. Goodman said it would be up to state lawmakers on whether to further expand the program.
Additional material from The Associated Press and Cox Newspapers.
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