Beckett parents winners in House budget

ATLANTA - Georgia families cut off from a Medicaid program for their children with severe disabilities would get their coverage restored under a budget bill the House is expected to pass today.

Lawmakers are expected to set aside $7.6 million for families who have been dropped from the Katie Beckett program because of stricter eligibility requirements being enforced by the state.

"We're going to take care of these families who were depending on Katie Beckett and lost it,'' Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said shortly before the panel approved Gov. Sonny Perdue's $18.7 billion 2007 budget request and sent it to the full House.

The committee also tacked on 3 percent pay raises for about 10,000 state public safety employees, on top of the 2 percent to 4 percent increases Perdue recommended for teachers and state workers.

That means employees of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the departments of Corrections, Juvenile Justice, Pardons and Paroles and Public Safety would receive raises of least 5 percent.

And House budget writers made a host of changes to the governor's proposals in health care spending, including funds to provide community-based services to an additional 2,000 of Georgia's elderly, mentally retarded and developmentally disabled.

The Katie Beckett coverage would go to more than 1,600 Georgia kids with diseases including Down syndrome and autism whose families have lost coverage since last fall.

That's when the state Department of Community Health began tightening eligibility on orders from the federal government.

Several weeks ago, Senate Democrats spearheaded an amendment to the 2006 midyear budget earmarking $3.6 million to help those families get through the rest of this fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

House Republican leaders put in another $4 million during subsequent negotiations with their Senate counterparts.

"It's not going to cover everybody who wants to get in the program,'' Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said Tuesday. "The ones we're trying to take care of are the ones who did qualify and then the criteria changed.''

But the money would come with strings that have advocates for the Katie Beckett program concerned.

The budget the House will take up today refers to the $7.6 million as "one-time'' funding. It calls for the creation of an independent foundation to handle the program in the future.

Johnson said lawmakers hope the foundation will be able to "leverage'' private contributions to augment what the state provides.

"The state can't afford to take on the whole Katie Beckett program,'' he said.

Harbin said the "supplemental'' raises for public safety employees would let Georgia catch up with what surrounding states pay their troopers and prison guards.

"We should have been embarrassed,'' he said. "We were way under everyone around us in payroll for these people.''

The additional funds the budget committee earmarked for community-based services would allow the state to serve another 500 elderly Georgians and 1,500 mentally retarded and developmentally disabled - half children and half adults.

The state has been plagued for years with long waiting lists for those services.

Gwinnett County also fared well in the House budget. Lawmakers kept a couple of spending items recommended by the governor and made an addition steered in part toward Gwinnett.

The spending plan includes $2 million in bonds to build the Hamilton Mill branch library and $1 million in startup costs for Georgia Gwinnett College, both part of Perdue's budget request.

The House even goes one-up on the governor with the library money, suggesting that it be put in the midyear budget instead of being held until fiscal 2007.

House budget writers also added $500,000 for health departments in 10 fast-growing counties - including Gwinnett - that have outstripped the state's decades-old formula for public health grants.