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SPRINGDALE -- Congress must quickly reauthorize a federal program that covers health care costs for tens of thousands of Arkansas children, advocates said Monday.

The 20-year-old Children's Health Insurance Program's budget is approved only until the end of this month unless the Senate and House agree to extend it. The program helped pay for primary, dental and mental health care for about 121,000 children in fiscal 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and it is credited for driving down the uninsured rate among children.

The program would limp on for a few months without the renewal as states spend the last of the money. Meanwhile, federal lawmakers are heading into the year's final weeks of work with several pressing matters to deal with. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families held a policy forum Monday evening to urge legislators not to let the insurance program get lost in the shuffle.

"We don't want to gamble with this in any way," said Laura Kellams, the group's Northwest Arkansas director. The group encourages policies that promote children's welfare in areas like education, foster care and health.

The health insurance program began with bipartisan support and is intertwined with a similar state effort called ARKids First, which then-Gov. Mike Huckabee signed into law. Since then, the uninsured rate among children in Arkansas has fallen from around 20 percent to less than 5 percent, according to census estimates.

ARKids works in two tracks. One track essentially provides Medicaid to children who qualify and includes hundreds of thousands of children, and it isn't affected by this particular deadline. The other track provides the same types of care for families who make up to about twice the federal poverty level and has them kick in a small amount, such as $10 per doctor visit.

The federal government covers all of the cost of the second track, or almost $200 million expected for this year, said Marquita Little, health policy director for Arkansas Advocates.

Without this second coverage program, "what we'd see is just many, many less people coming for care," Dr. Eddie Ochoa, a pediatrician with the Arkansas Children's Hospital and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences systems, said at the forum. Any gap in coverage can mean health needs go unseen or untreated longer, which can distract children in school or cause other problems, he and Kellams said.

Little said the state would need to decide whether to take on the burden itself, provide the program in some smaller way or cut it altogether.

"Are we going to cover fewer kids? Are we going to cover fewer people with disabilities? Or are we going to pay physicians less?" she said.

The Children's Health Insurance Program still enjoys bipartisan support. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a prominent Republican from Utah who co-authored the original bill creating the program, said last week he'd support authorizing it for another five years, according to the Washington Examiner. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers, last month called its renewal a priority.

State officials in both parties also hope to allow Marshallese children, thousands of whom live in Northwest Arkansas, to join ARKids if they qualify. The request to the federal government for the change is pending but could come before the end of the year.

The biggest risk is lack of time, Womack said in an August interview. Congress is trying to put together a budget for the entire government, a process that's sure to come with disagreements between and within the two major parties. Proposals to change the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are also floating around after consuming months of debate earlier this year.

"It's very important to me, but it's not the only thing I'm working on," Womack, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said of the children's health program.

Web watch

For more information about ARKids First and the benefits it provides, go to arkidsfirst.com.

Still, some oppose the program or would see it reduced; President Donald Trump's budget proposal included cuts to it as part of an overall goal to reduce nondefense spending. Kellams urged the several dozen forum attendees to contact their representatives.

Metro on 09/12/2017

Print Headline: State group warns health care at risk for 121,000 youths

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