HELENA - The federal health reform bill won't immediately affect Montana's new, expanded children's health insurance program - but it's likely to set up a political battle over future funding of the program, advocates of the Montana program say.
"The fight isn't today," said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, and a leading advocate of Healthy Montana Kids, the Montana program. "The fight becomes in reauthorizing (the money)."
Healthy Montana Kids, overwhelmingly approved by Montana voters in 2008 and launched last October, expands the Children's Health Insurance Program and Medicaid, two government health insurance programs. When fully implemented, it's supposed to cover an additional 29,000 children in Montana.
The health reform bill passed by the U.S. House late last year eliminates CHIP at the end of 2013. It says families with kids covered by CHIP then must shop for private health coverage on a new "health insurance exchange," which is an Internet clearinghouse for private insurance policies.
The Senate version of the health reform bill preserves CHIP and provides federal funds through 2015.
Democratic leaders in the Senate and House are negotiating a single, final version of the health reform bill that can be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Caferro and others said they're fairly confident the Senate version will prevail and CHIP won't be eliminated in 2013, thus keeping Healthy Montana Kids intact - for now.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., a longtime supporter of CHIP, said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that the Senate bill "ensures the program (will) remain in place and funded as the new reforms take effect."
Beyond 2015, Baucus "will make sure that Montana's children get the care and coverage they deserve in whatever way makes the most sense," his office said.
Caferro said she has "100 percent confidence that (Baucus) is going to fight to preserve CHIP as a standalone program when the time comes," noting that Montanans have voted twice in the past five years to expand it.
Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which administers Healthy Montana Kids, said Wednesday the agency is "eagerly waiting for a final version of the national health care reform bill," but isn't taking a position on what should be in that final version.
It's important to maintain Healthy Montana Kids, Caferro said, not only because Montana voters strongly supported it, but because its health coverage is more affordable than what moderate-income families could find in the private market - even if they get subsidies to buy insurance.
If families are forced to buy private health insurance on an exchange, they'd be paying a lot more for coverage, she says.
A recent study commissioned by First Focus, a children's advocacy group, said families covered by CHIP in Montana pay between zero and 2 percent of their health care costs for their children.
If they buy private health insurance, they would pay 7 percent to 30 percent of health costs - in addition to the insurance premium, the study said.
Caferro said the Senate bill also contains an improvement for Healthy Montana Kids, in that it removes a ban on eligible public employees from using the program.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.