Kansas will get $153 million over the next five years to spend on health care for children.
A panel led by state Sen. Sandy Praeger, R-Lawrence, will begin work Tuesday in Topeka to decide how Kansas should distribute $32 million in federal dollars each year for five years for children's health care.
The work group will make recommendations to Gov. Bill Graves and the Kansas Legislature on how to best spend the funds on some 70,000 to 75,000 Kansas children whose families have no health insurance.
"It's a great opportunity to provide health coverage to a group where we know good intervention is going to be cost-effective," Praeger said. "Health and education are closely tied together. You can't learn if you're not healthy."
Congress recently approved sending $20.25 billion over the next five years to the states for children's health care insurance. The funding results from an increase in tobacco tax at the federal level.
The funding Kansas gets must be matched with $12.3 million a year from the state, she said.
Praeger said she didn't know what percentage of Lawrence's children would be eligible for the benefits.
"My guess is we're probably a little higher than the state average," she said. Part of that reason is that Lawrence has a high number of people who are students whose incomes are low, she said.
Praeger said the 30-member work group may decide to provide benefits to more children than those whose families now meet the threshold income levels for Medicaid eligibility.
"We've got an awful lot of flexibility," Praeger said last week.
The group could also suggest the state put together its own health care program, decide on the benefits it wants to cover and expand the income thresholds up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, she said.
The benefit package would have to be comparable to what is now offered to federal employees, she said. For example, it would need to include vision and hearing screening tests, she said.
"Dental was not specifically included, but that's something I hope we discuss," she said. "I think good oral hygiene is just as important as vision and health."
The panel will also consider subsidizing the health insurance premiums of people who are getting off welfare and going back to work, but still can't afford to buy health insurance for their children.
"If we can find some ways to stimulate the private insurance market to develop some children-specific insurance products, then people can get insurance products as their income increases," she said.
She said subsidizing premiums is a more permanent solution than providing coverage through Medicaid, because when people earn enough to go off Medicaid, they lose their insurance.
Praeger was appointed to lead the group by Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rochelle Chronister. Members of the work group include four legislators, representatives of the insurance industry, health care providers, children's advocacy groups and the business communities.
The group, which also includes Gloria Timmer, the governor's budget director, will hold a two-day retreat Oct. 13-14 to formulate recommendations.