My Turn: A simple solution to kids' health insurance

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2007

It's 2007. Some 18,000 Alaska children do not have health insurance. Half of those children are from working families. The cost of health insurance keeps rising, and many Alaskans are out of luck if they don't work for a company that offers health insurance or if they don't qualify for Medicaid.

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A solution to provide affordable health coverage to every child in this state is staring us in the face. When I see an easy way to solve a big problem, I like to follow up on it. In the world of politics, easy solutions don't come along that often.

In February, Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and I introduced the "Leave No Child Uninsured Act" (we're not above catchy titles). This shouldn't just be a Democratic proposal. We hope it will become a bipartisan approach to a nonpartisan, Alaska problem. It has attracted some bipartisan support.

How can the problem of children's health coverage be easy to solve? Under federal law, states can qualify for federal matching funds to insure both low-income children and children of working families who don't have health insurance. The federal government will pay roughly 70 percent of the cost of state children's health insurance coverage for working families.

Until 2003, Alaska had one of the nation's strongest children's health insurance plans. In 2003, however, former Gov. Frank Murkowski cut the program that was originally ushered in under former Gov. Tony Knowles.

Today 39 states offer free health insurance to children of families that earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $34,000 in annual income for a single parent and child). That's what Alaska did under our Denali KidCare state children's health insurance program plan until the 2003 cut. Now, Alaska has the third lowest eligibility level in the nation. We now deny insurance to children of families that earn more than 154 percent of the poverty level, and roughly 3,000 Alaska children have lost Denali KidCare coverage since 2003. According to state officials, Alaska's state children's health insurance program eligibility level is so low that we risk being disqualified from federal funding next year.

Wielechowski and I propose to leverage the 70 percent federal match to insure children up to 200 percent of the poverty level for free, or even up to 175 percent of the poverty level if we need to keep the cost down further. We would also allow families that earn higher incomes but do not have access to insurance at work to purchase children's coverage for a sliding cost between $200 and $1,500 per child, depending on the family's income. A growing number of states are implementing versions of this program, and these plans also qualify for federal matching funds.

The result would be affordable health insurance for every Alaska child. Children whose parents receive health coverage through work would remain insured. Children of families who do not have available employer health insurance could buy children's health insurance. We would continue to insure lower income families at no charge.

So, what would this cost? After the federal matching contribution, it costs the state roughly $600 to insure a child under our Denali KidCare plan. Charging higher-income working families will help reduce that cost.

This year, I disagreed with those colleagues who spent roughly $1 million on April's nonbinding advisory vote to deny health coverage to partners of gay state and city employees. For the money spent to deny a few hundred people workplace health insurance, we could have insured more than 1,000 children.

Or how about this? This year tourism businesses are supporting legislation to add $13 million in state tourism advertising funds. There's merit to both sides of that debate. For less than half of that amount, we can provide affordable health insurance to every child in Alaska. Universal children's medical coverage is less costly, and in my view more important than many of the projects it competes against for public funds.

So, can we afford to provide medical coverage for Alaska's children? It depends on what our priorities are. I think we can.

• Rep. Les Gara is an Anchorage Democrat.

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