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PeachCare to reopen enrollment

ATLANTA - The state will lift a freeze on health coverage for children of the working poor next month, Georgia's chief health official announced Thursday.

Families will be able to sign up for PeachCare for Kids starting July 12, four months after the state Board of Community Health froze enrollment in the popular program because of a federal funding shortfall.

"This is perfect timing," Community Health Commissioner Rhonda Medows said Thursday after the board voted to lift the enrollment freeze. "It is before school starts back, and everybody needs their physicals."

The agency imposed the freeze in March as PeachCare was about to run out of money, the result of chronic underfunding of the State Children's Health Insurance Program by Congress.

Georgia and 13 other states have been on the short end of a funding formula in place since SCHIP's inception that bases allocations on the number of uninsured children. States like Georgia that experienced great success in enrolling kids and, thus, reducing their uninsured population, have been penalized with lower allocations.

Congress stepped up last month with $650 million for states affected by the shortfall, folding the money into a supplemental spending bill primarily aimed at funding the war in Iraq. Georgia's share will be $121 million.

To make sure that infusion of cash will cover PeachCare through the end of the current federal fiscal year in September, enrollment will be capped at 295,000 children.

Medows said 274,000 kids are being covered by PeachCare as of this month.

Consumer health advocate Linda Lowe praised the decision to lift the enrollment freeze.

"It's important for kids to have health coverage during the summer," she said. "They're out playing, having little accidents. ... I think it's a really important step in the right direction."

PeachCare provides health coverage to children in families with incomes above the income threshold for Medicaid but who can't afford to buy private health insurance. Families with incomes up to 235 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for coverage.

The next hurdle PeachCare faces will be congressional reauthorization of SCHIP later this year. All federal funding for the decade-old program is due to expire Oct. 1 without the passage of a reauthorization bill.

There are a wide range of proposals for dealing with the issue, from President Bush's plan to limit eligibility to families with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level to Democratic-backed legislation to pour $50 billion into SCHIP, 10 times what Bush is asking.