WASHINGTON – As a Thursday deadline approaches,letters are circulating on Capitol Hill demanding action on legislation to allow states to keep more than $1 billion in unspent children's health care funds.
“If Congress does not act by September 30 to preserve these funds,states will be forced to cut coverage for as many as 200,000 low-income children,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller,D-W.Va.,wrote in a letter to Majority Leader Bill Frist,R-Tenn.
Rockefeller's legislation calls for Congress to allow states to keep half of the $1.07 billion in State Children's Health Insurance Program funds they otherwise must return Thursday at the end of the fiscal year. The remaining half would be redistributed to states that have run out of money and need more.
SCHIP provides medical care for children in low-income families.
If Congress does not make a decision,the money will return to the U.S. Treasury.
But the Department of Health and Human Services,which administers the state grants,said the issue is not about the money,but how best use it to ensure that the most children are getting the health care they need. HHS is working with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley,R-Iowa,on a proposal to use the money for an outreach campaign that will help states enroll more children over the next two years.
“The issue is not about money. There's plenty of money,” said Bill Pierce,a Health and Human Services spokesman. “The issue is allocating it for the best uses.”
Pierce said the outreach campaign is in line with the proposal made by President Bush during his convention address in New York. Last year,5.8 million children were enrolled in the program.
“One of the things we have discovered in the program is the difficulty in reaching all those who are eligible,” Pierce said. “There are many people who don't yet know this program exists for their children.”
Rockefeller and supporters don't favor the HHS plan. Also signing the letter to Frist were Sens. Lincoln Chafee,R-R.I.; Edward Kennedy,D-Mass.; and Olympia Snowe,R-Me. As of late Tuesday,Frist had not responded to the letter.
“The president wants to focus on outreach,but that ignores the fact that children need coverage now. We don't need to locate these children – we need to serve them,” said Stuart Chapman,Rockefeller's press secretary.
The National Governors Association wrote HHS late Tuesday asking it to give states the money.
“Our first priority is keeping the program money in the states. Once we're sure the actual coverage money will be there,we'll be happy to talk about outreach,” said Matt Salo,director of the group's Health and Human Services Committee.
The health program,created in 1997,divided block grants totaling $40 billion among the states over 10 years. On Friday,states will receive their shares of the $10.8 billion allotment for 2005.
In addition, HHS will redirect $660 million of unspent money from fiscal 2002 to states in need,included the seven that are expected to have shortfalls next year.