ATLANTA - Through personal stories, statistics and Bible readings, a handful of advocates and residents at a public hearing pushed for the Department of Community Health to back off a plan to halt enrollment for PeachCare beginning March 11.
"To me, the freeze of the enrollment of PeachCare is a failure of Georgia to live up to its partnerships with our (working) families," said Pat Willis, the executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children.
Without an infusion of cash from either the General Assembly or the federal government, PeachCare will run up a $57 million deficit before the state fiscal year ends June 30 and a $131 million shortfall when the federal budget year ends Sept. 30.
State officials say the shortfall is on the federal side of the program and the onus is on Congress to fill the gap. But Alan Essig, the executive director of the nonpartisan, left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said cutting off enrollment would save the state just $1 million to $2 million between March 11 and June 30.
"All I can think of is, it's again part of the overall poker game that's being played with the federal government, with the children as the chips," Mr. Essig said.
Dr. Martin Michaels said the state's emergency rooms have already seen a spike in the number of uninsured children after changes to the eligibility rules earlier this year.
"This PeachCare freeze would not be the beginning of a crisis," said Dr. Michaels, the president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "It would exacerbate the current crisis greatly."
Kendal Richardson, a minister at Live Life Tabernacle of Praise, said it was the state's divine duty to look after its young residents.
"Children are a gift," he said. "You can't just play with them."
On Friday, a task force appointed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle released a set of proposals to make sure the problem doesn't face deficits in the future. The options included raising premiums for most recipients, scaling back some dental and vision coverage and moving some low-income families to Medicaid by increasing the eligibility standards for that program.
Combined, the three steps would reduce the deficit to $10 million, Mr. Cagle's office said.
Reach Brandon Larrabee at (678) 977-3709 or firstname.lastname@example.org.