By andy Zieminski
ANNAPOLIS – Howard County officials and the state Comptroller’s Office are pushing ahead with plans to recruit more children for a federally funded health insurance program, even as the program’s future is up in the air.
Congress last week failed to override President Bush’s veto of a bill that would have expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years and could have extended coverage to an additional 69,500 Maryland children.
The current SCHIP law is set to expire next month if Congress and the White House cannot reach agreement on a bill.
But that uncertainty has not stopped Howard County’s plan to use state tax records to find parents of children who qualify for SCHIP, based on the family’s income, but are not yet enrolled.
“Frankly, it’s inconceivable that this program will not be reauthorized. The question is at what funding level,” said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the Howard County health officer.
Bush has said he would add $5 billion to the program, which opponents say would force Maryland and other states to cut coverage.
“If it’s reauthorized at the president’s level, then the comptroller program for us is not totally moot, but it will give much less yield,” said Beilenson, whose county devised the program as part of a broad plan to extend health access to every resident.
Under the program, the Comptroller’s Office will search state tax records to identify Howard County households that earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty limit, the cutoff for eligibility in Maryland’s current version of SCHIP.
The Comptroller’s Office will then notify families by mail of their possible eligibility for SCHIP and urge them to contact the Howard County Health Department for more information, said Catherine Duray, a spokeswoman for the comptroller.
A draft of the letter that would be sent to eligible families will be reviewed by the attorney general’s office to ensure it respects recipients’ privacy.
Comptroller Peter Franchot has said his office is willing to help other counties with a similar arrangement.
“They would just need to contact us,” Duray said. “Comptroller Franchot has already expressed his interest in helping any jurisdiction that is interested in a similar type program.”
Beilenson said letters will go out to 21,000 households and cost an estimated $8,000 at the bulk rate, with Howard County picking up the postage.
“I think it’s very easy,” Beilenson said. “It’s not a lot of work on their (the comptroller’s) part. It’s simply printing the letters, folding them and mailing them.”
Duray said the Comptroller’s Office would expect other counties to enter into a comparable “financial partnership” on the costs of any such program.
While other counties have not yet contacted the comptroller about the possibility of a similar campaign, Michael Sanderson of the Maryland Association of Counties thinks the idea will catch on.
“My guess is right now this may be a conversation that other counties are just starting to have,” he said. “I think Howard County is just the beginning.”
Beilenson said other counties might want to wait to see how well it works in Howard County first. But Sanderson, the legislative director for MACO, said county administrators are likely to discuss the concept at a three-day conference starting Wednesday.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something they talk about,” he said.