By MICHAEL WALSH, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON (Sept. 13, 2007) - More than half of Maryland's uninsured children could be covered by a renewal of the Children's Health Insurance Program that is scheduled for termination at the end of the month, a report released Wednesday said.
There are 139,000 uninsured children living in Maryland, according to the report from Families USA, and as many as 59 percent of those children would receive health care if the program is renewed.
"If the legislation adopted is similar to either the House or Senate bills, there will be a significant improvement in health coverage," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA on a conference call.
That significant improvement is not lost on Maryland officials.
"It's a huge deal for the state," said John Folkemer, deputy secretary for health care financing. With more than 100,000 children in the program, Maryland's uninsured child population is "large" in comparison to other states, he said.
"Each year we're spending two and a half times the amount of federal money that we're allocated," Folkemer said. "The only way we're able to keep the program going are the reallocations from other states that don't use up all their money."
The reauthorization bill originally earmarked money for certain diseases and treatments, but now it will be spent in block grants given to states to use at their discretion.
To determine who qualifies, states pick an income threshold that families must be below, varying between 150 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
To be eligible in Maryland, a family's income cannot exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty limit or $61,800 for a family of four.
"The states can do whatever they think is necessary to cover the kids," said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.
But President Bush has said that he will veto either bill, saying both are too expensive and citing the phenomenon known as "crowd out" where consumers leave private health care when public care becomes available.
Different versions of the bill have passed in the House and Senate and a final version must be sent to Bush for approval.
The House bill would cover 5 million uninsured children over the next five years, while the Senate version covers 4 million. Under the House bill, the number of uninsured children in 41 states and the District of Columbia would be halved, while the Senate bill halves the uninsured minor population of just 19 states and the District.
The current law is set to expire Sept. 30, leaving 6 million children without health care who do not qualify for Medicaid and are not wealthy enough for private care.
Saying that it would be "hard to believe" that the president would veto the bill, Pallone said that he did not have another option ready if it was struck down.
"We don't have a Plan B."
And in Maryland the consequences would be great, Folkemer said.
"We would be way, way short."