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Report could play role in children's insurance debate

Rest assured, a virtually nonstop parade of Georgia congressmen and U.S. senators told members of the General Assembly during the recently concluded session.

The future of the state's popular PeachCare for Kids program is safe with the newly minted 110th Congress, they said.

But now that the legislature has done its part by adding $81 million to the midyear budget to temporarily plug a federal shortfall in PeachCare, the prospects for its parent - the State Children's Health Insurance Program - no longer look like a slam dunk.

A report released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office this month found that for every 100 children enrolled in SCHIP, there is a corresponding reduction in private coverage of between 25 and 50 children.

The CBO went on to say the available evidence suggests that most of that reduction occurred because parents chose to enroll their kids in SCHIP rather than buy private coverage, not because their employers decided to stop offering to cover their children.

As the Democratic-controlled Congress takes up legislation this summer to reauthorize the 10-year-old program, Republicans are expected to use the report as an argument to try to limit SCHIP eligibility to families with incomes no more than 200 percent above the federal poverty level.

The CBO report offered Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson an "I told you so" opportunity.

A bill introduced by Richardson, R-Hiram, this year would have set a 200 percent cap on eligibility for PeachCare, down from the current 235 percent.

The legislation made it through the House and Senate only to die in a conference committee on the last day of the session.

"It's not a surprise to me," the speaker said of the congressional report. "This is exactly what I've been saying all along, that we need to rein in this program. People are canceling their private insurance to get state benefits at the cost of taxpayers."

But House Minority Leader DuBose Porter said tightening the eligibility requirements would only force taxpayers to foot a bigger bill.

Porter, D-Dublin, said the families that would be knocked off of the PeachCare rolls by Richardson's legislation wouldn't necessarily sign up for private coverage. Many couldn't afford to pay for insurance and would become uninsured, Porter said.

"People need to realize that when there's a larger pool of uninsured ... that's going to raise the rates of private insurance holders," he said. "If you want to keep private insurance rates lower, we need to expand SCHIP."

That's just what congressional Democrats are planning to do. Bills pending in the House and Senate would reauthorize SCHIP at $50 billion over the next five years.

That's a huge increase considering that the federal share of the program since its inception has been about $40 billion.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, pointed to another section of the CBO report as justification for expanding SCHIP.

The agency found that among children in families with incomes between 100 percent and 200 percent of the poverty level, the uninsurance rate fell from 22.5 percent in 1996 - the year before the program was enacted - to 16.5 percent in 2005.

During the same period, according to the report, the uninsurance rate for higher-income children stayed about the same.

"That means that SCHIP is helping the lower-income families it's meant to serve," Baucus told CQ Today.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the Finance panel's ranking Republican, reached a different conclusion.

In an interview with CongressDaily, Grassley said the CBO's findings support a more restrictive approach toward reauthorizing SCHIP.

"This report tells us that Congress needs to make sure that whatever it does, it should actually result in more kids having health insurance, rather than simply shifting children from private to public health insurance," he said.

Linda Lowe, a consumer health advocate from Atlanta, said Republicans would ratchet down children's health insurance coverage at their political peril.

She pointed to a poll released last week by the University of Georgia's Survey Research Center. According to the random sampling of 500 adult Georgians, commissioned by the Healthcare Georgia Foundation, 80 percent supported expanding PeachCare to cover more uninsured children.

"There is wide and deep support for this program in Georgia," Lowe said.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.