Archive for Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bill covers more kids, postpones aid to adults

March 20, 2008

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— State medical coverage for an additional 5,500 children in middle-class families won Senate approval Wednesday, but some members wanted to go further in tackling health care issues.

Senators approved a health care bill, 30-8. The House expects to debate its own measure next week, and the final version will be worked out by negotiators.

The Senate bill phases in a $14 million expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program over two years. The goal is to cover medical services for more children whose parents work but can't afford private insurance.

"It's a very solid step forward," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, an Independence Republican. "Health reform has been and will continue to be about incremental gains."

But some senators criticized the bill because it would indefinitely postpone a new program created last year. That program would provide aid, starting in 2009, to about 8,500 poor parents so that they can buy private insurance.

The Senate's Republican leaders are nervous about the program's potential cost, which would rise to about $140 million a year by 2013. But others see starting the program - and perhaps expanding it - as a way to help some of the 307,000 Kansans who don't have insurance.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, called the Senate's bill "a sham."

"I can only describe it as a colossal failure," he said. "When we have an opportunity in our own state to take care of our own citizens, I think we should seize that opportunity."

Hensley and others hoped when the year began that the Legislature would approve a sweeping health care plan.

The Kansas Health Policy Authority proposed a package of 21 initiatives that would have phased in a $330 million increase in spending on programs over five years. That plan included an increase in tobacco taxes to help pay for the new spending.

The Health Policy Authority not only proposed keeping the insurance subsidy program for poor families on track but expanding it to include poor adults without children. Under its recommendations, the state eventually would spend $241 million a year on insurance subsidies.

Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius endorsed the plan, but legislators have never seriously considered the tobacco tax increase. And some Republicans who voted for the subsidy program last year are having second thoughts because of its potential cost.

Schmidt suggested it's not realistic to think legislators can enact a sweeping plan. He said such a plan would be too expensive and noted that health care is an issue that "crosses state lines."

"There is not going to be a sweeping overhaul of the system at the state level that fixes all the problems," Schmidt said. "Every year, we try to do something that expands access and improves care."

But Hensley called Schmidt's assessment a "worn-out excuse" for doing little.

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