ATLANTA - The expected end of the PeachCare freeze, scheduled to be voted on today by the state Board of Community Health, is just the first step to the program's long-term survival.
Even with the freeze lifted - replaced by a cap that many believe will quickly be reached - Congress is set to begin a debate over the future of PeachCare and programs like it in other states.
"There's a high likelihood" that the Senate and the House will pass a State Children's Health Insurance Program reauthorization before the summer recess, said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a nonpartisan organization that supports increased government spending on health care.
One proposal floated by some conservative lawmakers, who would limit eligibility to families that make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $41,300 for a family of four, appears to be a nonstarter, Mr. Pollack said.
That restriction would have affected thousands of Georgia recipients; the state income limit for PeachCare is 235 percent of poverty, or $48,527.50.
"I don't believe either body is going to scale back eligibility," he said.
Instead, leaders in the Democratic leadership appear poised to push legislation infusing the program with massive amounts of new cash, anywhere from $35 billion in new money provided for in a bipartisan agreement struck by the Senate Finance Committee to $50 billion in extra funding called for by a budget resolution Congress passed earlier this year.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., has warned against changing the insurance programs into entitlements, which are funded without limit and according to how many people sign up. Currently, states receive a set amount of money from the federal government and have to fund their programs with those allotments.
"Congress ought to focus on addressing the entitlement spending problem it has already created," researchers Nicola Moore and J.D. Foster argued on the foundation's Web site. "Expanding yet another federal health care program would be reckless, risky, and irresponsible."
The vote to end the enrollment freeze on PeachCare is expected to go ahead regardless of what happens in Congress.
The plan approved tentatively by the Board of Community Health in June would allow the number of children on PeachCare to rise to 295,000, an increase of about 21,000, though state officials and advocates expect the extra slots to be filled quickly.
But unlike a full freeze, children could be added to the program, or allowed back if their families miss a payment, as other children drop off.
After the board approved the change, Community Health Commissioner Dr. Rhonda Medows said the state would likely take another look at the cap after federal action.
"We won't know what we have to work with until we see something passed," she said.
Reach Brandon Larrabee at (678) 977-3709 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
AT A GLANCE
what: PeachCare is Georgia's version of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, a joint state-federal program that offers health care for children whose families earn too much income to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance.
impact: Without congressional action, the program will expire Oct. 1. what's next: Advocates for expanding the politically popular program say legislation keeping it up and running could reach the floor of the House, the Senate or both as soon as next week.
- Morris News Service