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State still looking for children's insurance deal in Congress

WASHINGTON - Georgia officials are growing anxious that Congress may not renew a children's health insurance program until next year, a move that could put the state's PeachCare system in the same budget hole it found itself in earlier this year.

Six weeks after President Bush vetoed a bill to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, negotiations for a compromise appear to have stalled. Congress left town for a two-week Thanksgiving break Friday without resolving the impasse, and lawmakers will return to a brief and hectic schedule in December before adjourning for the year.

Congress already has adopted a series of short-term extensions to keep funding at current levels, and Democratic leaders could decide to continue that strategy through much of 2008. Under that scenario, Georgia anticipates PeachCare would run out of federal money in March as demand again outstrips the budget.

'We are in the heart of budget season right now and it's very difficult to budget for an agency as critical as the Department of Community Health when you have uncertainty like this,' said Heather Hedrick Teilhet, a spokeswoman for Gov. Sonny Perdue. 'We are urging Congress and the president to come up with a compromise.'

Although some states have surpluses, Georgia was among 14 states that faced funding shortfalls in their SCHIP programs earlier this year until Congress approved emergency spending to tide them over as lawmakers debated a new five-year spending plan.

Congress passed a renewal last month that would have increased spending by $7 billion annually, enough to cover some 4 million more children nationwide. Bush vetoed the bill, arguing it was too expensive, and Congress fell just short of the votes needed to override the veto.

All seven of Georgia's Republican House members and both of its Republican senators opposed the measure. Rep. Jim Marshall, a Democrat from Macon, was the only House Democrat to side with Bush on the veto.

Doug Moore, Marshall's spokesman, said there should be enough bipartisan support for a compromise to make certain that Georgia doesn't have another budget crunch.

'The devil's in the details though, and that's what they're trying to iron out,' he said.

In the meantime, state officials said they are struggling to manage the uncertainty.

'We don't know if they'll pass a version that expands the program or reduces eligibility,' said Amanda Seals, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Community Health. 'It's just a wait and see approach ... we've heard all different scenarios.'

SCHIP is a state-federal partnership intended for children in working families whose parents make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private coverage.