Fate of Miss. CHIP uncertain until Congress resolves funding

Published 11:02 pm Saturday, October 6, 2007

The future of a federal-state health insurance program that covers about 60,000 Mississippi children remains in limbo following a presidential veto this week.

More than 6 million children nationwide participate in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which was created a decade ago to subsidize health coverage for families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford their own private insurance.

The House and Senate approved legislation that would expand SCHIP, raising the annual cost from $5 billion to $12 billion, to allow an additional 4 million children into the program. It would be funded by increasing the federal cigarette tax by 61 cents to $1 per pack.

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President Bush vetoed the bill on Wednesday, citing the program’s cost and its likelihood to motivate people now covered in the private sector to switch to government coverage.

Democratic congressional leaders may attempt a veto override, but based on last week’s vote in the House, there may not be enough Republican support.

Francis Rullan, a spokesman for the Division of Medicaid in Mississippi, which enrolls children in the state’s CHIP program, said the temporary funding Congress approved ends in mid-November.

“We have to see what options we have available to us when the deadline comes and the feds have not acted. Then the executive director (of Medicaid) will meet with the governor and his health care advisers to make recommendations to the Legislature.

“We don’t really know truly what the situation holds in the future. If that’s not addressed, it doesn’t bode well for the kids that are already on the program,” Rullan said.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said there’s not much the Legislature can do about funding because “we are highly dependent upon the federal money to pay for the CHIP program.”

Gov. Haley Barbour is opposed to the congressional proposal. He said that the funding formula would leave Mississippi’s fiscal year 2008 federal allotment nearly $100 million short to cover all the children who would be eligible for the program.

Three of Mississippi’s four congressmen and two senators voted against reauthorizing the program. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., supported it.

Mississippians should be concerned about the funding debate as the number of uninsured children is rising, said Jacquelyn Weatherspoon, program manager for the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works to advance health care policies.

Weatherspoon said an estimated 101,000 children are uninsured in the state. She said that figure would increase if children on the CHIP program lost benefits. She said the only safety nets would be community and federal health centers, which “are strained and stressed right now.”

Emergency rooms are where many children dropped from the CHIP program would end up, further increasing the state’s uncompensated care costs, said Weatherspoon.

Rullan said Medicaid received $189 million in federal funds to cover a portion of the state’s uncompensated care costs in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

During recent budget hearings, Medicaid Executive Director Robert Robinson told lawmakers that he was working with Barbour and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on different strategies to continue health coverage for children on CHIP even if Congress doesn’t act on funding.