Rep. Bishop says Congress will step up on PeachCare

ATLANTA - Congress will address a shortfall facing children's health insurance in Georgia and 16 other states next month, U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop vowed Wednesday.

But in the meantime, Bishop, D-Albany, urged the General Assembly to approve a "bridge plan'' to cover a projected $131 million shortfall in Georgia's version of the federal program, PeachCare for Kids, so health coverage for 273,000 Georgia children won't be disrupted.

"We have a shared responsibility,'' the veteran congressman and former state lawmaker told members of the Georgia House during brief remarks.

The deficit facing PeachCare has become a dominant issue in this year's legislative session.

Without a plan to plug the funding gap, lawmakers are unable to act on either Gov. Sonny Perdue's midyear budget request or the governor's spending recommendations for 2008.

As a result, legislative leaders have begun talking about calling a recess in the 40-day session, a break that could begin by the middle or end of next week.

Georgia's state and federal elected officials have been playing a game of chicken over PeachCare funding for more than a month.

Perdue and legislative leaders have attributed the shortfall to a flawed federal formula that sends more money to states that are less successful than Georgia in enrolling uninsured children in the program.

They have accused Congress of failing to step forward to meet the federal government's commitment to fund 70 percent of PeachCare.

On the other hand, members of the state's congressional delegation have said the shortfall is simply a matter of the program's rapid enrollment growth.

"That's a good problem to have,'' U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said Tuesday during a speech to members of the Georgia Senate. "It means we've got almost 70,000 additional children who have health insurance.''

While federal and state officials debate the cause of the deficit, Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly disagree on how to fix it.

House Republican leaders have introduced a bill to tighten the eligibility requirements to enroll in PeachCare.

The legislation would limit the program to children in families earning 200 percent or less of the federal poverty limit, or $40,000 a year for a family of four. Current law caps eligibility at 235 percent of the poverty level.

But Democrats oppose the measure because it would remove about 21,000 children from PeachCare coverage.

Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, took to the well of the House on Wednesday to push for passage of a bill she has introduced that would allow the state to cover the shortfall until Congress acts on the funding.

"It's time for us to step up,'' she said. "It's time for Georgians to take care of Georgia.''

Congress, too, is looking at different fixes.

Chambliss and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., have introduced a proposal in the Senate to fill the funding gap for Georgia and other states facing shortfalls by taking the funds from the states that are enjoying surpluses.

But the two Georgia Republicans face the obstacle of pushing their plan in a Democratic-controlled Senate.

Bishop said majority Democrats in the House plan to add funding for children's health insurance to a supplemental spending bill being sought by President Bush for the war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, a new Georgia House subcommittee given the task of finding a long-term solution to PeachCare's financial dilemma held its first meeting on Wednesday.

Mark Trail, who oversees PeachCare for the state Department of Community Health, outlined the agency's ongoing efforts to address fraud and abuse through new income and citizenship verification rules.

Trail said the DCH has found through random sampling of about 30 percent of PeachCare applicants that roughly 3 percent are lying about their incomes to the extent that they shouldn't be receiving coverage.

Rep. Sean Jerguson, R-Holly Springs, the subcommittee's chairman, said income verification is a worthwhile policy for the state, even if the percentage of cheaters is low.

"Even if it is 3 percent, that's 8,000 children,'' he said.