- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007


Many states are making more children eligible for government-funded health insurance even as President Bush’s health chief says families are relying too much on public money for the coverage.

The goal of the states is to allow more middle-class families to participate in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The states are raising income limits so families once shut out because of their earnings now can qualify.

When the program began a decade ago, states could offer coverage to families whose income was not more than double the federal poverty level. Today, for example, that threshold is $41,300 for a family of four. A few states use a Medicaid-based formula that lets them insure more children than under the income limit.

Already, 18 states exceed the 200 percent level, with federal permission. Five more, plus the District of Columbia, could join the list this year, according to a survey by Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.

New York lawmakers recently set an income limit of up to $82,600 for a family of four. Eligible families get some government help in buying insurance. The poorer they are, the greater the subsidy.

Other states considering significant expansions in eligibility include California, Ohio and Oklahoma. Florida and Oregon are considering modest expansions, the center reported.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt said if other states followed New York’s proposal, it would mean that 71 percent of the nation’s children would be on “public assistance.”

Jocelyn Guyer, deputy executive director of the university center, said states have determined that public health insurance is better than no insurance at all. She said a range of studies shows that most children entering the program would otherwise lack coverage.

“State leaders are moving in a very different direction than the Bush administration is talking about,” Miss Guyer said. “They see that even moderate-income families increasingly find that coverage is simply unaffordable, and that it’s appropriate to have some subsidy.”

Her organization conducts research but also advocates for more federal money for children’s health insurance.

In 1997, Congress provided the children’s insurance program with $40 billion over 10 years. The program now covers more than 6 million people, including about 640,000 adults. The families make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private insurance.

A large expansion of children’s health insurance is a priority for Democrats. They want to spend $75 billion over five years; the Bush administration is seeking less than half that.

The administration wants the insurance program to help just low-income families. Mr. Leavitt said all states should enact plans that would provide other families with access to more basic insurance policies.

The Senate Finance Committee may take up a children’s health insurance bill as soon as next month.

Legislation introduced last week by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, would allow states to expand coverage to families earning less than triple the poverty level, or $61,950 for a family of four.

Mr. Kennedy said the program “has been a great success, but 9 million children in the United States still lack health insurance. This bill will make a real difference in their lives.”

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