State Employees May be Eligible for CHIP Coverage

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Children of some state employees could soon be eligible for a free health insurance program.

The federal health care bill passed by Congress in March gave states the option of making their employees’ children eligible for the Children’s Health Insurance Plan.

Montana health officials said Monday that the state has asked the federal government how to take advantage of the option, which had previously been unavailable.

Health insurance for state employees is subsidized by the state, but they usually have to pay extra premiums to cover family members.

Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said some people earning entry-level wages may not be able to afford the extra premiums to cover their children.

CHIP provides free health insurance to children of families earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $45,800 for a family of three.

Voters in 2008 approved the Healthy Montana Kids program, which expands eligibility for both Medicaid and CHIP coverage, two programs funded with state and federal money.

The goal of the Healthy Montana Kids program was to provide health insurance for an additional 30,000 children. Since the new standards took effect, just 6,600 children have been added to the government-funded insurance programs.

Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, said some Montanans may be reluctant to sign up for what they perceive as government assistance, especially those earning between 175 percent and 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

The number of children covered by CHIP — the program that covers that income bracket — has actually declined by 2,500 since the expanded program began last October.

Children covered under both CHIP and Medicare have increased from nearly 70,000 last October to 76,558 by April 30. The numbers do not reflect the expected response to an ad campaign that began in late March. State officials delayed the ad campaign after having problems with a new computer system used to enroll children.

Whiting Sorrell said she still believes the goal of adding 30,000 children is reachable.

“It remains a top priority of the governor,” she said. “I don’t think there is anything more important we can do in Montana than to get kids health care.”

Republicans who doubted the program’s need point to the limited enrollment and say the program’s funding could be targeted by the Legislature for budget cuts next year.

“Was there really a need to cover those higher-income people?” he asked. “If not, then let’s take that money out of the budget. That will absolutely be on the list of things to look at” during the 2011 Legislature, said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena.