CAPITOL WEEKLY: Health care: Is Schwarzenegger turning his back on the children?

CAPITOL WEEKLY: Health care: Is Schwarzenegger turning his back on the children?

By Wendy Lazarus

Last week marked the first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s signing of the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (CHIPRA) to help low-income, working families purchase coverage for their uninsured children. This important legislation helped to ensure that nearly one million California children would continue to have access to health coverage. We were proud to see that Gov. Schwarzenegger was a strong supporter of CHIPRA legislation.

But that was a year ago. Where are we now? 

Governor Schwarzenegger’s newest budget proposal makes a 180-degree shift from his previous support of CHIPRA and California’s version of the program, Healthy Families. His latest budget threatens to eliminate the Healthy Families program – completely – if California does not get additional money from the federal government to help us out of our budget woes, resulting in approximately 950,000 children losing health coverage.

In the best-case scenario, which is a long-shot, he still proposes to cut $78 million from the Healthy Families Program, reduce eligibility, eliminate vision care, and push more than 200,000 of our children on to the ranks of the uninsured.

At a time when California families are barely hanging on, the Governor proposes to cut their children’s health insurance, essentially making them political pawns with federal leaders who just a year ago delivered a historic investment in children’s health, through the passage and signing of CHIPRA.

Through this legislation, federal funding for states’ children’s health insurance programs was tripled. By providing states with new resources and tools, CHIPRA reaffirmed that children’s coverage is a national priority.

In California, Healthy Families has proven to provide cost-effective, high-quality care to children who otherwise would go without or be forced to turn to expensive emergency room care. Gov. Schwarzenegger himself has publicly recognized CHIP as an “enormous success” that is “incredibly valuable.”

So why don’t his actions match his words and place the same priority on our children’s health, as our federal leaders did?

Let me speak plainly. Dropping health insurance for kids is a foolish decision that would cost every Californian. Uninsured children still need health care; they’re just sicker when they finally get into the emergency room, so their care is more expensive and their medical issue is more severe. Those costs are passed on to every business and family that holds a private insurance policy. Healthy Families brings much needed federal money into California: the federal government pays two dollars for every one dollar California puts into Healthy Families. At the same time that the Governor appropriately complains that California doesn’t get its fair share of federal funding compared to other states, he is proposing to send over $800 million annually in federal funds back to Washington.

A budget that makes one child uninsured – and certainly a budget that makes one million uninsured – is unacceptable. During tough times, California families expect lawmakers to protect what matters most – the health of their children. Families and those of us who stand up for children won’t be fooled by the political game of passing the buck for kids between the federal government and our state.

California’s budget debate has already begun, and this is a mantra that our Governor and legislature must hear repeatedly: Children’s health must continually be one of our top budget priorities. An investment in children’s health is a wise investment in California’s future and an investment we can’t afford to walk away from.

When President Obama signed CHIPRA, his administration, members of Congress, and state officials all came together in recognition of the importance of keeping kids covered, even as work on national health care reform continued. One year later, the need to keep Healthy Families strong is greater than ever. To eliminate or cut back on the program, at this juncture, would be foolish and poor public policy. On this anniversary, let’s commit to continuing to move forward and not fall back.