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Barbour says SCHIP has ‘shortchanged’ Mississippi

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said legislation pending in Congress could expand government health coverage to children of middle-class families in states like New York and New Jersey without doing enough to help children in poor states like his.

Barbour, a Republican, urged U.S. senators to make changes to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. The federally funded program was started in 1997 as a way to provide health insurance to children from families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance.

Congress is now debating plans to keep the program alive and possibly expand it. The House passed a bill nearly two weeks ago, and the Senate is expected to debate one soon.

“Liberal supporters of this bill will claim it’s about health care for poor children. That’s not true,” Barbour said Monday during a news conference in Jackson. “If it were about health care for poor children, the bill would not shortchange the poor children of Mississippi by tens of millions of dollars.”

The bill that passed the House could add another 4.1 million children nationwide to SCHIP. About 7 million receive coverage through the program now.

The legislation would allow states to seek federal permission to cover children in families with incomes higher than three times the federal poverty level — $63,600 for a family of four.

In Mississippi, SCHIP covers children in families with incomes at about twice the poverty level, about $44,000. In December, 66,022 children were enrolled, up from 63,111 in December 2007.

Barbour said Mississippi’s share of annual federal money for SCHIP has always been too low at the beginning of each budget year. He said Mississippi’s costs have been covered only after wealthier states have left some of their federal money unspent and that money was reshuffled among poor states.

U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss., praised efforts to expand coverage under SCHIP.

“During these tough economic times, more and more hard working Americans are losing their jobs, and parents are struggling to provide heath care coverage for their children,” Childers said Monday in a news release. “Too many of Mississippi’s children lack health insurance.”

Childers was traveling Monday and was not immediately available to respond to Barbour’s criticism of the proposed SCHIP expansion.

Childers spokeswoman Dana Edelstein cited statistics by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, showing that under the plan that has passed the House, Mississippi’s share of SCHIP money would nearly triple, from the current $64.1 million to $183.7 million.

“The new legislation also uses a more accurate formula to ensure that funding goes to states with families who need it the most,” Edelstein said. “No state currently covers children in families earning $83,000 a year, and the new bill does not expand the coverage levels put in place in the 1997 bipartisan legislation.”

Childers’ Democratic colleagues in Congress doubt most states will move to expand eligibility for SCHIP during tough economic times. Even if states choose to do so, more working families need the help, they say.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said in a news statement that he agrees with Barbour’s criticism of the plans being discussed in Washington.

“The original intention of SCHIP was to provide low-income children with health insurance, which is a concept that I have always supported,” said Wicker, who served in the House for 13 years before moving to the Senate in 2008. “Unfortunately, Democratic leaders are using SCHIP as a vehicle to expand health insurance to high-income families. The Democrats’ bill would allow New York and New Jersey to expand SCHIP to families earning up to $88,000 a year.”

Barbour, who led the Republican National Committee from 1993-97, said the legislation “will give free, government-run health insurance to some half a million children who today have private health insurance.”

“That’s outrageous,” Barbour said. “And it makes clear that the real purpose of this bill is to replace private health insurance, replace our private health care system, with a government-run health care system.”