Maryland joins health care fight

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland has joined a coalition led by New York that plans to file a lawsuit accusing the Bush administration of trying to block state governments from expanding health care for children from modest-income families, Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday.

The lawsuit would allege that the federal government exceeded its authority by placing new restrictions on the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which is funded with state and federal dollars.

In an Aug. 17 letter to state health officials across the nation, the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services said states attempting to expand eligibility under SCHIP would have to document that they have enrolled 95 percent of children whose parents earn less than twice the poverty level - a standard that no state meets.

The bill to reauthorize SCHIP that Congress passed last week - which would cover 4 million more children at an added cost of $35 billion over five years - would roll back the new requirements.

President Bush has said he plans to veto the legislation, saying it would cost too much to expand the program, which covers children whose families are not poor enough to be eligible under Medicaid.

New York would be the lead state in filing the lawsuit because the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services used the new restrictions to deny its request to extend health care coverage to all of the state's uninsured children.

Reached for comment, Jeff Nelligan, a spokesman for the center, said: "We are confident that our requirements are appropriate and will be sustained in a court of law. Our chief goal with SCHIP is to ensure that the poorest kids and those with no health insurance are placed at the front of the line."

Yesterday, O'Malley, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and other Democratic elected officials rallied outside the Maryland State House to urge Bush to sign the SCHIP reauthorization bill.

In Maryland, families that earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level - about $60,000 for a family of four - are eligible for the program.

O'Malley said expansion would cover an additional 42,000 uninsured children in Maryland.

At the rally, 12-year-old Graeme Frost of Baltimore read a letter he and his father wrote to Bush and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican and the sole member of the Maryland delegation to vote against SCHIP reauthorization.

Graeme's family used the program after he and his sister were severely injured in a 2004 car accident.

"There are millions of kids out there who don't have SCHIP, and they wouldn't get the care that my sister and I did if they got hurt," Graeme said yesterday.

"Their parents might have to sell their car or even their house, or they might not be able to pay for hospital bills at all."

Bartlett said he was "proud" that he voted in favor of creating the SCHIP program in 1997.

"I want to help the working poor, but Democrats are demanding that SCHIP be expanded to have government-controlled, taxpayer-paid health care for millions of children whose families already have private health care coverage," he said.

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