Govs Press for Action on Child Health Care
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Governors are expected to urge President Bush today (Feb. 26) to work with Congress to quickly provide $765 million to prevent at least 14 states from running out of money for a popular children's health program.
Health care, Iraq, and the federal No Child Left Behind education law are expected to be top issues when governors meet this morning with the president and several Cabinet members as part of the National Governors Association's winter meeting.
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, chairman of the Republican Governors Association , is leading a bipartisan campaign to press Congress and the Bush administration for an immediate infusion of federal funds for the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), which provides subsidized health insurance to families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid.
Perdue said his state's PeachCare S-CHIP program will run out of money next month. "It's imminent. It's real. We want to make sure that Congress understands … how quickly we need action," he said at a news conference Sunday (Feb. 25) with several other governors.
At least 14 states face shortfalls by spring if Congress doesn't step in with more money. The emergency infusion of cash is being called for as the 10-year-old program also comes up for reauthorization in Congress this year.
Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) said his program will be broke in May, putting at risk some 3,200 children. New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) said his state will have to take steps by the first of May without help from Washington , D.C. Corzine didn't spell out what those steps might be, but he said states facing shortfalls are considering moving children currently in S-CHIP to Medicaid, while others might use loans to keep their programs running.
Perdue, Baldacci and Corzine were among 13 governors who signed a bipartisan letter to congressional leaders calling for action on immediate cash for S-CHIP "at the earliest possible opportunity."
Also during the meeting, some governors expressed concern about the president's proposal in his budget to refocus the program more strictly on children whose families make less than twice the poverty level ($41,300 for a family of four).
"Many states have expanded or have proposed expanding eligibility of S-CHIP," Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said earlier in the conference. Arizona , for example, wants to expand its coverage to families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, up from 200 percent. "The president's budget is problematic," she said.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, a former governor of Utah , will be on hand when the governors go to the White House to meet with Bush. Leavitt also will take part on a panel session Feb. 26 devoted to S-CHIP.
Also on the health-care front, the governors in a Feb. 23 letter called on Congress to block a new proposed rule from the Bush administration that they said would cut $5 billion over five years in federal Medicaid funds. The administration has argued the rule is needed to prevent states from using controversial accounting tricks to get the federal government to shoulder a great share of a state's Medicaid costs . The rule would go into effect in September.
Another prickly issue that governors spent considerable time discussing during a Feb. 25 closed-door session was the No Child Left Behind law, which is due to be renewed by Congress this year. While the governors agree with the goals of that sweeping education law, they have problems with its implementation and funding and are trying to craft a response to Congress. "Governors will be actively involved with the reauthorization," Napolitano said. The governors will get their chance to raise their concerns when they meet U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who also will be at the White House.
The use of National Guard also was on the minds of many governors. "The Guard is being pulled in a number of directions. They are being stretched," Napolitano said, noting that some 1,500 Arizona National Guard troops are in Iraq , another 640 are in North Carolina being trained for future deployment and 500 more are stationed at the border of Mexico . "We have left millions of dollars of our key equipment overseas," she said.
New governors met privately Sunday (Feb. 25) with Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau , the federal agency that oversees Guard activities, and raised concerns about the country's reliance on the part-time soldiers of state-based Guard units for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"They (the governors) are rightfully concerned that while the personnel part of the Guard has never been better, never been more ready, the equipment piece to the National Guard back here at home has never been less ready, and they are trying to resolve that obvious disconnect," Blum told Stateline.org following the meeting. He said the governors also wanted more resources. "The message is clear: What we have in the budget does not produce the level of readiness that they feel comfortable with," he said.
Several governors said they were looking forward to seeing the March 1 recommendations from the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves to Congress on how to improve the Guard, including possible changes in the role governors play.
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) said, "We really need to have a conversation in this country about what the National Guard troops are to do and whether they become a full-time force."
Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) said governors would continue to lobby Congress to roll back a change in federal law that gives the White House power to go over a governor's head and call up National Guard troops during natural disasters or other public emergencies. "Traditionally, throughout the centuries-long history of our country, the governors of the states had the responsibility and the prerogative of calling up the Guard for domestic matters. We feel strongly about that. We will be working with Congress to change that back," Douglas said.
In its first gathering since Democrats took control of Congress, the NGA is hoping its record of bipartisanship and consensus-building will mean a bigger role for governors at a time of divided government in Washington . "We are far more effective when we act together in a bipartisan manner than any of us can be singly," Napolitano when she opened the conference Feb. 24.
A large portion of the NGA meeting has focused on how states can create jobs, spur innovation and be more competitive, the pet project of Napolitano, the NGA chair this year. The aim is to create new businesses through better science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Intel Corp. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are providing $3 million to states for the effort. Governors also received tips, including a call-to-action report and strategies for growing their state economies.