Officials push for healthcare funds
JACKSON SQ.—State and federal officials, including Gov. Deval Patrick and Sen. John Kerry, visited Martha Elliot Health Center (MEHC) Sept. 14 to call for support for re-authorization of a federal program that provides healthcare for 91,000 children in Massachusetts.
In a move Patrick described as “frankly, dumb,” President George Bush has threatened to veto House and Senate proposals to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which must be reauthorized by Sept. 30.
Speaking to the press, MECH Medical Director Dr. David Holder said Massachusetts has been successful with the SCHIP program because the state is committed to reaching out to uninsured families. The state has undertaken the effort with the same “creativity and courage” that Boston surgeons showed when they pioneered the use of laughing gas as anesthesia and that the Bromley-Heath community displayed in founding MEHC, he said.
Bromley Heath Tenant Corporation Executive Director Mildred Hailey, who helped found MECH, and who Patrick and Kerry both name-checked in their remarks to the press, told the Gazette a number of families in the center’s catchment area rely on SCHIP. “There is no way we should have a proven program and talk about not funding it,” she said.
State Representatives Liz Malia and Jeffery Sánchez, who met with Patrick and Kerry prior to the press event, both echoed concerns universally expressed.
“I can’t believe they are seriously considering this at the federal level, especially when we know how desperately we need funds to do more health care, not less,” Malia said.
Congress enacted the program in 1997, providing $40 billion to states over 10 years. The House recently voted to provide about $35 billion in additional funding for the block grant program for five years, and the Senate voted to appropriate close to an additional $50 billion for the same time period.
Bush, however, is proposing to allocate $5 billion in additional funding for the next half-decade.
Due to the inflation of healthcare costs, “Five billion dollars will not even cover kids currently in the program at a time we are trying to expand,” Kerry said.
Patrick said Massachusetts has already received federal approval to expand its SCHIP program, which is administered in the state by MassHealth.
According to a press release from the Dorchester-based Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN), which has been advocating for expansion of the program, Massachusetts would be able to enroll an additional 60,000 to 75,000 of the state’s approximately 112,000 uninsured children under the Congressional proposals.
The president has also proposed to limit eligibility for the program to families earning less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level. Massachusetts currently covers families earning up to 300 percent.
The changes will “significantly weaken, if not kill” SCHIP, Kerry said. He and Sen. Edward Kennedy recently introduced legislation intended to maintain the program under its current framework.
Patrick said the defunding of SCHIP would drive more families seeking healthcare to emergency rooms and limit the state’s ability to support uninsured families seeking preventative care for their children or care for their chronic conditions.
SCHIP coverage was factored in when the state passed reform aimed at making affordable healthcare available to all legal residents, he said, and there is currently no clear means to make up for the funding that would be lost.
Lew Finfer of MCAN said the state would need to find “several million dollars, the estimates are around $200 million or $300 million” to make up for the lost funding.
This will affect the entire system of how we deliver health care and preventative care to children,” Sánchez said.
Hailey noted that defunding healthcare for youth will likely exacerbate other public health problems. “Many violence problems stem from lack of health care, lack of mental health programs and other kinds of health programs,” she said.