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Georgia Republicans oppose children's insurance expansion

WASHINGTON - Months after Georgia ran short of money for PeachCare children's health insurance, Republicans in the state's congressional delegation are opposing efforts to expand its parent program in Washington.

Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson said Thursday they will vote against legislation to increase federal spending for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, which is aimed at children of the working poor. The Senate measure, which appears to have broad bipartisan support and has won praise from nearly all the nation's governors, could come up for a vote Thursday.

In the House, all seven of the state's Republican members voted Wednesday night against a broader expansion that drew nearly unanimous GOP opposition. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon, was the lone Georgia Democrat to join them.

Republicans - while they support a more modest expansion - criticized the Democratic proposals as a massive expansion of government-run health care and argued that Congress could serve SCHIP's target audience with far less money.

'The desire of those on the left to gradually move every American to Washington-controlled bureaucratic health care is so strong they will stop at nothing,' Rep. Tom Price, R-Roswell, said on the House floor before the vote.

Democrats pointed to studies showing that millions of children are going without health care because their parents earn too much to enroll in Medicaid but not enough to afford private coverage. Providing insurance is not just the right thing to do, they said, but could ultimately save money by steering families toward preventive care instead of more expensive emergency room visits.

In March, Georgia was forced to freeze enrollment in its version of SCHIP, called PeachCare, after demand outstripped funding by about $131 million. State lawmakers later agreed to plug the gap until Congress approved emergency funding in May.

The current proposals in Congress would authorize SCHIP for another five years, expanding it to offer coverage to children who are eligible but have not been participating.

The House bill, which passed 225-204, would boost spending by $50 billion over five years, enough to roughly double the current enrollment of about 6 million people. The Senate measure calls for a $35 billion expansion, paving the way for some 3 million new enrollees.

Both bills would pay for the expansion by raising taxes on cigarettes - by 61 cents a pack in the Senate and 45 cents in the House. The House bill also would cut federal payments to Medicare HMO's.

A spokesman for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who traveled to Washington several times this spring to lobby for more PeachCare funding, said the governor has not endorsed any specific funding level. But Perdue was among 43 governors who sent Congress a letter last month urging quick passage and saying they were encouraged by the bipartisan Senate proposal.

Chambliss and Isakson, however, said the Senate bill is too generous, letting some states continue getting waivers to enroll families in higher income brackets and adults. They said Georgia ran out of money because of a flawed state distribution formula, not because of a lack of money nationally.

'There's not a person on the Senate floor who isn't for children's health insurance,' Isakson said. The question, he said, was whether to provide it through the government or through the private market.

Marshall - who was one of just 10 Democrats to vote against the bill - said through a spokesman that he supports the expansion but had concerns with parts of the House bill, particularly language giving states more flexibility in documenting the citizenship of applicants. Marshall hopes to support the final package after the House and Senate versions are combined in conference, his spokesman said.

Families making up to 235 percent of the federal poverty limit are eligible for PeachCare. That's about $40,000 for a family of three. According to state figures, 282,501 people were enrolled as of July 30.