WASHINGTON — Georgia's ability to continue extending health-care coverage to thousands of low-income children was hanging in the balance as the U.S. Senate Finance Committee voted on a plan Tuesday night to renew and expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program before it expires at the end of September.
The program, commonly known as SCHIP, also includes PeachCare for Kids, the financially strained state program for children whose families fall just shy of qualifying for Medicaid.
PeachCare faced a federal funding shortfall in March and issued a four-month freeze on extending benefits to new applicants. The Department of Community Health began enrolling 22,000 of those children last week after the state Legislature appropriated roughly $80 million in emergency funds and the federal government provided an additional $121 million in May.
The state's health agency received an additional $35 million from a surplus in SCHIP funds. The agency recently approved capping enrollment at 295,000 members to help further stretch funds.
"That will get us through the end of September," Amanda Seals, director of communications for the state's Department of Community Health. "The major concern in Georgia is that Congress needs to reauthorize (SCHIP) for it to continue. We're watching Congress for whatever action they take."
Programs like PeachCare would receive a financial boost if Senate Democrats are able to pass a plan to increase SCHIP funding to about $75 billion over the next five years to help cover the nation's 8.3 million uninsured children. Senate Republicans and President Bush balk at the proposal and favor an increase to about $30 billion-a figure some health policy experts say is far too low to cover the nation's poor children.
"It is very concerning that the president has threatened to veto a proposal that would expand the level of funding. It would really be a blow to children's health care," said Robin Rudowitz, a principal policy analyst with the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health policy research organization. "There are 6 million kids on the program and their coverage would be jeopardized. States rely on that funding."
In many ways, PeachCare, and programs like it across the country have worked too well. As the price of private of insurance increased, the ranks of uninsured Americans swelled to an estimated 45 million, according to figures from Kaiser. The federal government and states teamed up to create programs like PeachCare 10 years ago to make sure the nation's neediest residents, including an estimated 9 million children who don't qualify for Medicaid, have health insurance.
"Georgia's done a good job of finding children who need coverage," said Angie Snyder, a senior research associate at Georgia State University.
Though families who qualify for programs like PeachCare generally earn roughly twice the federal poverty level, or $41,300 for a family of four, many states have expanded their guidelines to enroll children from families slightly above that level and even adults. Such broad leeway may ultimately hurt states, said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
"If we make the mistake of expanding the programs overly to adults then ultimately we hurt children in a program that has worked so well in Georgia," Isakson said.