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Kids' advocates blast PeachCare cutoff

ATLANTA - Freezing enrollment in the PeachCare program next month would deprive up to 15,000 Georgia children of health insurance without putting more than a dent in a funding shortfall, children's advocates said Friday.

The state Department of Community Health announced two weeks ago that the program for children of working families would stop accepting new enrollees as of March 11. The move also would affect families suspended from the rolls for failing to pay monthly premiums on time.

Agency Commissioner Rhonda Medows said the freeze was necessary to make sure 273,000 current enrollees continue to receive health coverage if nothing happens to resolve a looming shortfall in federal funds.

But on Friday, Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said the freeze would save only about $1 million to $2 million. PeachCare needs some $50 million to $60 million to cover costs through the current state fiscal year, which ends June 30.

"If this freeze isn't to solve a budget shortage, what's the purpose?'' Essig asked during a public hearing on the planned freeze.

Answering his own question, Essig suggested that threatening to cut off enrollment is a political ploy by the state to force Congress to come up with the money.

"It's part of the overall poker game being played with the federal government, with children as the poker chips,'' he said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue and Republican legislative leaders say Congress created the shortfall with a faulty allocation formula built into the 10-year-old program, which punishes states like Georgia that have done a good job signing up children for health coverage.

Several members of Georgia's congressional delegation appeared before the General Assembly this week to assure lawmakers they're working on the problem. However, they also said the money isn't likely to be forthcoming for at least another month, and state health officials have warned that PeachCare could run out of money before then.

Democrats and children's advocates have called on the governor and lawmakers to step in and prop up PeachCare temporarily with state dollars while Congress considers what to do.

"To me, the freeze of PeachCare is a failure of Georgia,'' said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Several children's advocates who spoke during Friday's hearing suggested ways the state could find the money needed to plug the shortfall.

The solutions they raised included shifting PeachCare enrollees into the Medicaid program, increasing Georgia's cigarette tax or diverting funds Perdue has earmarked in his 2008 budget request to build more boat ramps along Georgia rivers or provide a tax cut to upper-income senior citizens.

"Health care is a priority,'' said Linda Lowe, a consumer advocate representing Families First. "Our state finds the money to fund programs that are a priority.''

Two of the speakers said they were disappointed that none of the members of the Board of Community Health attended Friday's hearing.

The agency staff member who presided said all of the comments would be transcribed and delivered to board members, who are due to vote on the freeze on March 8.