Politics & Government

State wins $17.6M bonus for kids' health

Help is on the way for Washington's insurance program for kids in low-income homes. The $17.6 million in bonus money awarded today to Washington by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is more than enough to keep the Apple Health for Kids program going through June, activists said.

Much of state government was shut down for furloughs today, but the Children's Alliance put out a news release announcing the award. About 15 states are getting $200 million in all, and Alliance deputy director Jon Gould said by telephone:

"The governor’s biennial proposal would reduce state funding by about $60 million in Apple Health. The governor's supplemental proposal would reduce funding by a further $9 million. The amount of the award today is more than enough to avoid the cut in the current budget. "

Gould said that the state could qualify for similar bonuses in future biennia until federal health reform kicks in in 2014. So the question for lawmakers becomes whether to invest now in order to receive that additional help.

"We think it's a natural that money earned by the success in children's health should be used to protect children's health – especially when this is federal money that Washington so desperately needs more of," Gould explained.

Gregoire’s office was closed for furloughs today and spokesmen familiar with this bonus payment were not immediately available to comment. And neither were staff at the state Medicaid office. But the alliance quoted Gregoire in its release as saying:

"This award is recognition that Washington state is at the forefront of states that have made children's health coverage a priority. These resources come at a critical time given our economic crisis, and provide a sensible means to continue our effort to ensure that all of Washington's children have health insurance, and that no child should ever have to go without health care."

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, had outlined a goal earlier in the decade of covering all children by 2010. The concept won strong support from Gregoire and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, leading to passage of legislation in 2005 to make that the state's formal goal. The specific Apple Health for Kids program was created in 2007, and Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser of Kent said additional legislation in 2008 helped extend state outreach efforts.

Since then, the state has one of the highest rates of coverage of children in the nation, which the federal government is recognizing again.

The Alliance said the latest Washington State Population Survey showed the rate of uninsured children fell from 4.6 percent to 3.4 percent over the past two years "even as the poor labor market limits parents’ access to employer-based health coverage."

And Sen. Brown said in a statement:

"When the Legislature set the goal in 2005 of covering all kids with health care by 2010, we made a real commitment to our young people, their health and their futures. The Apple Health for Kids program has followed through on that commitment, and its success has made Washington a recognized leader in providing children’s health care. These bonus funds help us keep this successful program going in a tough budget environment, and provide an example of how to leverage all available resources to keep our critical commitments intact."

Sure looks like the program has enough friends in high places to survive past June.