Anchorage Daily News, February 10, 2008: Get with the program

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Last fall kids protested at the White House over the president’s veto of a bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. This January, President Bush included a smaller increase for the program in his budget.

Maybe it’s time to march on Juneau, where a proposed increase to our own version of the federal program doesn’t seem to have much traction.

SCHIP provides free government health insurance for children who are not so poor that they qualify for Medicaid, but whose families would be stretched too thin if they had to buy insurance on their own.

In Alaska, kids in families that earn up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $46,400 for a family of four, can qualify.

Alaska’s 175 per cent income limit lags behind the percentage-of-poverty level allowed in many other states. It’s lower than even President Bush is willing to go.

Bush now says he’s willing to fund coverage for children in families with incomes that equal twice the poverty level. That won’t cover as many kids as a majority in Congress would like, but it would still be an increase in federal funding.

Sen. Bettye Davis of Anchorage is sponsoring a bill to get Alaska’s rate up to 200 percent.

The Legislature should get behind it. This is not the only major health bill that should move this year, but it is the one that is most immediately needed. It can quickly extend better health care to more children.

There are about 7,400 Alaska children enrolled in SCHIP now. Sen. Davis’ bill, SB 212, would add an estimated 1,277 more, according to a state analysis.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Rep. Les Gara have bills in from last year to make even more children eligible for SCHIP. Passing either of their proposals would be great. But at the least, the Legislature should raise the cut-off point to double the poverty level.

This rate was recently endorsed by a health planning task force appointed by the governor. But the governor herself has not yet come out in favor. She’s waiting to see what the Legislature and Congress do, said a spokesperson.

We say, wait no more — commit to better health care for Alaska children.

BOTTOM LINE: Alaska should at least match what President Bush proposes for children’s health insurance.

More health

Several good initiatives are before the Legislature

Besides children’s health insurance, the Legislature has an opportunity to advance a number of strong health proposals.

Here are three of the most important:

• Sen. Hollis French offers a bill to provide market-based, universal health insurance to Alaskans. Other states are working on the same thing and presidential candidates are talking about it. It’s no pie-in-the-sky deal.

This is a multiyear project, but the Legislature should take it up and begin examining the economics of it.

• The governor (and Sen. Fred Dyson) propose creating a health information Web site. This site would provide cost comparisons within Alaska for such items as prescriptions and medical procedures, and quality reports. The Legislature can approve it, and let the administration work out details.

• The University of Alaska proposes a budget increase to expand its nursing program. With a shortage of nurses and other health providers, this is sorely needed. The state should also boost the number of medical school students it is subsidizing in the regional program called WWAMI, from 20 to 25 or even 30 per year.

BOTTOM LINE: Plenty of health initiatives are before legislators, and these three are winners.

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