Senator asks for more time to sign kids up for Children's Health Insurance Plan

HELENA - U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., wants to give Montana more time to spend the $32 million in federal cash it was given to launch the Children's Health Insurance Plan for low income youth without health coverage.

Montana has until Sept. 29 to spend the federal money before it's returned to the government for other purposes. Burns wants to extend that deadline by one year, to give state officials more time to get uninsured Montana children signed up for the program known as CHIP.

"Allowing Montana to keep the CHIP funding it was given over two years ago will mean a lot to our young people," Burns said in a press release. "And it doesn't hurt our commitment to fiscal responsibility."

Burns is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which doles out federal cash.

CHIP was created in the 1997 federal balanced budget act. Montana is to receive $32.4 million to launch CHIP over a three-year period.

The 1999 Legislature approved the plan and agreed to contribute $8 million in the next two years.

Because Montana's legislature didn't meet for a year after the federal money was approved, CHIP Director Mary Dalton said more time is needed to ensure the program catches on.

So far, 4,783 children are enrolled since CHIP took effect October 1. The goal is to enroll 10,000 youth who have gone without health insurance.

Families that don't qualify for Medicaid and have incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or a $20,500 gross yearly income for a family of three, are eligible for CHIP.

Eligible families pay a $15 annual enrollment fee and a maximum $200 co-payment for services. A co-payment is a patient's share of the bill up to $200 per year.

Dalton, who is also the state Medicaid Services Bureau chief, said she's pleased with Montana's progress thus far, but there is a lot more work to do. Some parents hesitate to sign up their children because CHIP appears like a scam.

"It's sort of like one of those things that seems too good to be true," Dalton said.

Public outreach in local communities from posters in the grocery store to handouts at garage sales are helping remove those false fears, she said.

CHIP was never an entirely popular proposal. Several state lawmakers were concerned about the federal involvement.

Burns' spokesman Larry Akey said he isn't aware of any opposition in the Senate buy that the biggest hurdle is getting the measure passed before Congress adjourns this fall.

"We're not talking about new money, it's just providing more years to spend what Congress already authorized," Akey said.

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