ATLANTA - The state will step in to temporarily fund Georgia's financially strapped children's health insurance program while waiting for Congress to provide a permanent fix, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Tuesday.
The governor said he will ask the Legislature to move money already in the state's Medicaid budget into PeachCare for Kids, which provides health coverage for nearly 280,000 children in families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid but who can't afford private insurance.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, joined Perdue in Tuesday's announcement.
Perdue said he decided to act based on news last week that the Democratic-controlled U.S. House is moving to provide $735 billion to cover federal shortfalls in children's health insurance in Georgia and 13 other states. The money is included in a supplemental spending bill moving through the House that also continues funding for the war in Iraq.
"Congress' recent action gives me confidence that using these funds as a stopgap is appropriate to meet the needs of our children,'' the governor said in a prepared statement.
"This will allow us to keep this important program intact while we wait for our federal partners to finish their work.''
While some of the affected states have enough federal money on hand to run their children's health programs well into the spring, PeachCare is due to run out of federal funds at the end of this month.
As a result, the state Department of Community Health, which oversees PeachCare, froze the program's enrollment as of Sunday.
The uncertainty also prompted the General Assembly to halt the 2007 session for two weeks. Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday.
Since the session began in January, state and federal elected officials essentially have been playing a game of chicken over the looming shortfall, with each side calling on the other to put up the money to plug the gap.
Perdue and legislative leaders have blamed the deficit on a faulty federal formula that has left Georgia underfunded since PeachCare's inception a decade ago.
But several members of Georgia's congressional delegation - Democrats and Republicans alike - have faulted the state for poor planning.
"The state knew how much money they were going to get from us three years ago,'' U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said last week.
There had been signs that the state was going to provide stopgap funding for PeachCare well before Tuesday's announcement.
Early this month, a House budget subcommittee voted to cut Perdue's request for his new Go Fish Georgia program from $13 million to $5 million.
The governor's $50 million land conservation initiative also has been eyed by lawmakers looking to redirect money into PeachCare.
Neither would come close to the projected $131 million the state needs to cover PeachCare through Oct. 1, the start of the next federal fiscal year.
The Medicaid program, however, has the deep pockets necessary to temporarily plug the PeachCare deficit.
"Using Medicaid for temporary funding is the right solution,'' Richardson said.
For their part, legislative Democrats welcomed Perdue's decision to tap into Medicaid money to keep PeachCare running.
But Democratic leaders argued that the governor could have taken that step weeks ago, before the enrollment freeze.
"We're ecstatic at the position the governor is taking,'' said Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, the Democrats' point man on PeachCare in the Senate. "We believe that position is what the Democrats have been talking about for more than two weeks.''
During a news conference, Reed and other Democrats also called on the governor and Department of Community Health to use the bailout as an opportunity to lift the enrollment freeze.
But DCH officials weren't prepared to make that commitment on Tuesday.
"We're still digesting the information,'' agency spokeswoman Dena Brummer said. "As far as whether the freeze will be lifted, the verdict is still out.''