Friday, February 12, 2010

CoverKids insurance program reopens to new enrollees

Health program will get funds from state savings account By Janell Ross • THE TENNESSEAN • February 12, 2010 Tennessee's uninsured children will have a chance to enroll in a government-funded health-care program beginning March 1, about four months after it was closed to new participants because of the state budget crunch. In November, cash-strapped Tennessee became the only state in the nation to close its version of the children's health insurance program to new enrollees. State officials said at the time closing CoverKids was a tough choice but necessary because of a projected $1.5 billion state budget shortfall. Now CoverKids will draw between $1.5 million and $2 million from a state savings account for public health insurance programs, said Joe Burchfield, a spokesman for Cover Tennessee, the umbrella organization that oversees CoverKids. That's enough to enroll the estimated 5,000 children who are uninsured and qualify for CoverKids, he said. Gov. Phil Bredesen made the announcement late Thursday. It was good news inside Tennessee's health-care advocate community but earned Bredesen limited praise. "We have a ways to go to catch the rest of the nation, but this is a good first step," said Michele Johnson, the Tennessee Justice Center's managing attorney. The center has sued the state several times over decisions to remove different groups of adults and children from public health insurance programs. "It sends a message to the hard-working, middle-class families who rely on this program that they matter, and when they are facing this tough economy, the state will not abandon them entirely," Johnson said. Closing CoverKids last year was just part of a long line of choices the governor has made that don't serve Tennessee residents well, said Tony Garr, executive director of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign. CoverKids is designed to insure children of the working poor. It also allows parents who earn a bit more money but work for companies that don't provide insurance to share the cost of insuring their kids with the government. State defends program Burchfield and other state officials insisted Thursday that the program is an option, not a safety net for all of these families. Most uninsured children qualify for TennCare, a separate public health insurance program that covers the state's poorest and sickest residents, Burchfield said. "Any sort of characterization of it as a program of last resort or a safety net program is just incorrect," said Michael Drescher, a spokesman for the governor. "… None of us wanted to have to close the program off, but it was designed to be turned on and off." We have made it a priority to reopen it four months before it would otherwise have been funded. ... We did that in recognition of the fact that kids are often victims of a circumstance they didn't create." Children who qualify for the program immediately will be covered beginning April 1. The state's new budget year begins in July. Bredesen has called for about $43 million in state funding for CoverKids next budget year. If it is approved, the program will gain about $41.5 million in federal matching funds. Marshall County parent Kim Young was happy to hear that CoverKids will begin accepting more children now. "I've had a chance to see just how valuable, how important CoverKids can be," she said. In December, Young got a letter that said her disabled 14-year-old son was one of thousands of chronically ill Tennesseans being removed from TennCare coverage. By January, Young found herself shuttling between phone lines at CoverKids, TennCare and the Tennessee Department of Human Services. Some state workers told her that her son was eligible for CoverKids. Others told her the program was closed to new enrollees. Ultimately, she learned her son was still covered under TennCare. Without it, the family would have had to leave their son uninsured until 2011 or find a way to pay $560 a month for an individual private health insurance policy. "The insurance I am talking about, at $560 a month it would have only covered 80 percent, plus then there would have been the co-pays … so we are talking about a lot of money," Young said. "It would have been devastating for us, devastating." "When you cut a public program, there is nowhere else to fall," Garr said. "The governor has no concept of the important role that public programs play. He's shown this time and time again in the cuts in TennCare and the decision to close CoverKids."

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