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Looking to aid Maryland's uninsured kids

Most of the 135,000 uninsured children in Maryland come from working families and could benefit from a 10-year-old federal health care access program that expires this year, according to a new study advocating for the program’s renewal.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study was released Wednesday as part of the nonprofit’s $3 million marketing campaign to raise awareness about the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP, due for renewal and re-appropriation this year in Congress.

The initiative began in 1997 and since has offered states annual block grants worth a total $24 billion. States receive the federal match funds to bolster their own efforts to insure uninsured children.

Maryland’s version of the initiative, the Maryland Children’s Health Program or MCHP, itself is the subject of several legislative proposals this year in the General Assembly to expand access to children.

The state legislative proposals would expand the program to cover more than the current threshold — children of families with incomes of no more than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, or $40,000 annually for a family of four.

One proposal, introduced by Baltimore City Democrat Del. Peter A. Hammen, would add $1 per pack to the state’s tobacco tax and expand the MCHP program to families of all income levels.

Families would have to contribute to the cost of the health care based on their income level.

That proposal, House Bill 754, passed the House on second reader Wednesday. It is due for third reader Friday.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s study showed 66 percent of the state’s uninsured kids come from families that earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level.

Gov. Martin O’Malley and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue spoke yesterday morning at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Washington briefing on SCHIP.

“We are really standing on the threshold of a defining moment in America, where we have to decide how our nation is going to cover our children in the future,” O’Malley said at the briefing. “Can we cover every child in this nation? Are we going to do it?

About 120,000 people in Maryland benefit from MCHP. In addition to children, also eligible are pregnant women of any age with incomes no more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

Maryland for several years has spent more than its federal block grant allocation, but still has received funding through SCHIP funds left unused by other states.

O’Malley’s operating budget proposal for fiscal 2008 earmarks more than $190 million for the MCHP program in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene budget.

His legislative proposal, House Bill 132, would expand MCHP to children with families at 400 percent of the federal poverty line. That bill has remained in the House Health and Government Operations Committee since a hearing Feb. 16, and its Senate counterpart has remained in the Finance Committee.

O’Malley supports the spirit of Hammen’s bill, to expand access to health care, said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

But “the governor hasn’t been inclined to support the tobacco tax increase,” Abbruzzese added.

SCHIP historically has garnered bipartisan support in Congress. Supporters are hopeful it will be renewed this year, though President Bush has proposed scaling it back.

“It would be a horrible mistake not to continue this program,” said Mary L. Leach, director of Maryland Covering Kids and Families, a program started by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to reach out to families to get kids enrolled in MCHP. That initiative is part of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

“The good thing about it is, it really does have support across the aisle,” Leach added. “Nobody wants to take this away from little kids.”