Politics & Government

State gets extra $7.5 million in federal funds

A federal "bonus" payment of $7.5 million to Washington may avert some of the budget cuts Gov. Chris Gregoire is proposing for the tax-supported Children's Health Insurance Program.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius formally announced the $72 million in awards Thursday to nine states that have been most successful in expanding coverage for kids. The State CHIP plan is part of the state’s Apple Health for Kids program that now covers some 664,000 children in the state, most through Medicaid.

Washington’s share is the third largest, behind Alabama and Illinois. Other rewarded states are Alaska, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico and Oregon.

“This bonus award is recognition that Washington state is in the forefront of states that have made children’s health coverage a priority concern,” Gregoire said in a statement released by the advocacy group Children’s Alliance, in Seattle. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, also praised the move.

Gregoire’s budget office spokesman Glenn Kuper said the exact uses for the money have not been discussed. “We just got it and have to figure out what the restrictions are,’’ he said.

Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children’s Alliance, called on lawmakers “to use this funding to fully protect the Apple Health for Kids program. A performance bonus that recognizes Washington for doing a great job of making sure children have health coverage will help the state continue progress toward the goal of covering all kids by 2010.”

Children in families under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $44,100 for a family of four, receive coverage without premiums in the Apple Health program. Sebelius said Washington enrolled an additional 72,000 children in Apple Health in the last year and met standards to make it “as easy as possible” for parents to sign up their children.

Sebelius spoke Thursday afternoon on a conference call with reporters, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Seattle, and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma. Gregoire missed the event because she was flying back from Copenhagen.

Spokesman Jim Stevenson of the state Department of Social and Health Services said in an e-mail that “since Gregoire came into office in 2005, state coverage for children has increased by 146,000 children, and total Apple Health for Kids enrollment now stands at 664,000 – 40 percent of the children in the state.”

Over the past two years, state funding and outreach added 99,700 children to the rolls. “If enrollment trends continue, the state can expect Apple Health for Kids to cover 780,000 children – 46 percent of the state’s children – by June of 2011,” Stevenson said.

He said 2,500 kids were added to the SCHIP portion of Apple Health, which had larger gains in its Medicaid clients. There are about 75,000 eligible children not yet enrolled.

Gregoire’s budget proposal would cut the state’s spending on CHIP. Under her initial no-taxes budget proposal, the family- income eligibility for CHIP insurance subsidies would fall from 300 percent of the federal poverty level to 205 percent, knocking about 16,000 children off coverage.

Gregoire says she wants to raise unspecified taxes to cover programs such as this one, and the Children’s Alliance estimated the bonus money could cover about two-thirds of the loss.

Republicans have long cautioned against using one-time money for ongoing programs.

If lawmakers do cut funding for SCHIP, the state would not have to repay its bonus, according to Sebelius, because the bonus is a reward for past performance. But it could jeopardize another bonus next year, she said.

The bonus payments are a third part of the federal SCHIP re- authorization in February, which was broadened to cover more of the millions of children lacking insurance, Sebelius said. One part added coverage of children through Medicaid, another gave grants to states, and this piece rewards the states that are leading the pack in coverage.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688