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These states need some more time

These states need some more time

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Wednesday, September 27, 2000 Missoulian Editorial

The Children's Health Insurance Program was launched in 1997 with great fanfare. The idea was to combine federal and state money to buy private medical insurance for millions of children.

These are the kids of the "working poor." Their parents have jobs (sometimes several jobs) without benefits. Buying private insurance is too expensive, but these families make too much to qualify for other government insurance programs.

CHIP was a good idea and a noble experiment in 1997 and it remains so today. Congress should give states at least another year to use the money earmarked for these children.

Forty states haven't spent all of the money they received. If nothing is done to extend the program, about $2 billion, 45 percent of the total, including about $4 million from Montana would be sent along to the other 10 states that used their allotment and, after a year, returned to the national treasury.

That so many states have so much money still to spend just days before the deadline is revealing. Montana had to wait a year to get legislative approval to participate, then find state money to add to the CHIP pot. States had to design application forms, some of which were too complicated and had to be rewritten and streamlined.

States also had to convince medical and social-service communities that CHIP was a good idea, find insurance carriers, look for eligible children and round up doctors and other providers willing to see CHIP patients. Doing all that was a huge task that took a year and left just a year to enroll children.

About 8,000 youngsters are now covered in Montana, and the program has enough money to cover another 1,000 to 2,000 children. If Congress doesn't extend the program, those 1,000-2,000 children and their families lose, as does Montana as a whole.

Montana Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus are fighting to give the states more time. A Senate bill to extend the deadline would likely be attached or wrapped into another budget bill.

Time is short; the deadline is Sept. 30. Congress could approve the extension retroactively.

Health officials in Montana and 39 other states deserve at least another year to find children and families who could benefit from CHIP.

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