CHIPs Expansion Hopes Dwindle

The head of a key Senate committee said Tuesday the panel will not approve another bill aimed at boosting enrollment in the Children's Health Insurance Program -- leaving its fate largely to a divided House.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said senators have already approved a CHIP expansion bill and that it's now stuck in a logjam of bills as House Democrats prevent a vote on a controversial voter identification proposal.

"We've run out of time in committee to pass out a bill we've already approved," Ogden said. Ogden is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The session ends Monday.

Several bills filed at the beginning of the session sought to allow some Texas families who make too much money to qualify for CHIP, the joint state and federal health care program, to buy in to the program.

A bill by Waco Republican Sen. Kip Averitt would create a partial buy-in for families making up to 300 percent of the poverty line. Some families making more than that would be able to fully buy in to the program.

Currently only families making less than twice the federal poverty level -- around $44,100 for a family of four -- are eligible.

Averitt's bill passed out of Ogden's committee earlier this month and was scheduled for a vote Monday. But the stalemate in the House has delayed it and a midnight Tuesday deadline in the House will keep it from being considered.

Ogden said the House was given plenty of time to pass out that bill, and a similar proposal by Rep. Garnett Coleman, D-Houston, would not be sent to a vote by the full Senate.

But neither Coleman nor Averitt is willing to quit.

The House could still maneuver the bill around the battle over Voter ID. That could mean suspending the rules to take the bill up out of order or after the deadline has passed. But the partisan battle in the House has led the majority of Republicans to take a hard-line stance against suspending the rules.

"If things stay the way they are, there will not be CHIP legislation this session," Coleman said.

Averitt said it was also possible that portions of the CHIP expansion could be added on to other legislation in the final days of the session.

Supporters of the expansion say families who don't qualify and can't get coverage elsewhere are forced to get divorced or quit their jobs in order to get CHIP coverage for their children. Opponents say the current level of coverage ensures that only those who truly need coverage get it.

A coalition of advocacy groups including AARP, the Children's Defense Fund and the Center for Public Policy Priorities released a statement Tuesday evening urging leaders in both chambers -- namely Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus -- to do whatever they can to pass one of the bills. Proponents say the CHIP expansion could give coverage to 80,000 uninsured children in Texas.

"This isn't about political parties and their priorities. It is about the priority shared by an overwhelming majority of Texas families and business leaders on both sides of the aisle: covering uninsured children," the coalition said.

Dewhurst has supported expanding CHIP in the past. Spokesman Rich Parsons said there was still time for a last-minute manuever.

"The Senate has already passed the bill, and ideally it would move through the process. That said, there's still time to get things done other ways if necessary," he said.

Straus' office did not immediately return a request for comment.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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