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The Republic’s politics team talks Bisbees’s plastic bag ban, KidsCare funds drying up and Martha McSally and Paul Gosar entering Arizona’s Senate race on Nov. 1, 2017. Johanna Huckeba/azcentral

Arizona will ensure some 23,000 children from lower-income families don’t have to live without health insurance — at least for now — and the governor is officially asking Congress to make sure those kids stay covered.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office said Wednesday that the state will shift money around in existing budgets to cover the costs of KidsCare. The state-run, federally funded program was expected to drain its existing budget later this month, potentially leaving all 23,000 children without care. 

The new funding plan assumes Congress will renew funding for the popular program by early spring, said Christina Corieri, a senior adviser to the governor. That’s something Congress failed to do before the new federal budget year started Oct. 1.

“Nobody loses coverage, nobody changes coverage,” Corieri said.

And if Congress doesn’t restore funding for the program?

“We feel that is incredibly unlikely,” she said.

READ MORE:

With the wallet empty for KidsCare, Ducey quietly pushes for funding

Still, cutting off the federal funds for the Children’s Health Insurance Program — called KidsCare in Arizona — or even just reducing them could have a dire impact on kids’ health-care coverage, something experts consider to be a key safety net in keeping children out of the state’s foster-care system

Last week, when Ducey first publicly talked about his stance on KidsCare, he said he was confident Congress would renew the funding. 

But the governor hedged that hope Wednesday when he sent a letter to Arizona’s 11-member congressional delegation. He urged them to “swiftly” extend funding for the program, preferably by December. 

In contrast to his outspoken views on “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” Ducey had not publicly offered any comment on KidsCare as its funding was evaporating. The Arizona Republic last week requested his correspondence with Congress, but his staff said Wednesday’s letter is his first formal entreaty to the delegation. The governor said he has been working with congressional members, but it’s unusual to send letters, his staff said. 

In his letter, Ducey noted the program is not a typical welfare program that provides a service at no cost. Instead, it requires buy-in from the families whose children benefit from the program. They must pay a monthly premium of up to $70 a month, with the amount pegged to their income.

KidsCare is designed for children from families who make too much to qualify for the state’s Medicaid program, but who can’t afford to buy coverage through their employer or through the health-care exchange. Families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible. For a family of four, that is $49,200.

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Ducey talks KidsCare
Yvonne Wingett Sanchez/azcentral.com

The Democratic caucus in the state Senate applauded the Republican governor’s move, showing the bipartisan support the program enjoys, both in Arizona and nationally.

“This unnecessary cruelty can be avoided if Congress acts quickly to restore KidsCare funding,” the Democrats said in a news release.

However, if there is not swift action, Arizona will dip into federal Medicaid dollars and use that to cover KidsCare costs, Corieri said. When federal dollars start to flow again, Arizona can backfill the Medicaid account, she added.

This budget move will keep the program going and avoid the need for the state to notify the families that their coverage will end. “We won’t be sending anything out,” she said.

It also eliminates the need for the Legislature, at least for now, to act. Although Ducey on Tuesday said the state could look at dipping into its rainy-day fund — something that would take legislative approval — that won’t be needed, Corieri said. 

The Children’s Action Alliance, which lobbied hard last year for Arizona to rejoin the program after a six-year freeze, said the funding shift is prudent, but only as a bridge.

“Clearly, the Legislature and the Governor’s Office recognize how devastating it would be to have 23,000 children lose their health insurance overnight,” said Dana Wolfe Naimark, the group’s president and CEO.

Both houses of Congress have introduced bills to continue the CHIP program, and with bipartisan support. But the legislation never moved as the funding deadline neared.

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Almost 9 million children were enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, for the 2016 fiscal year.
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About this report

In 2016, when the number of children removed from their families peaked at more than 18,000, the Arizona Community Foundation gave The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com a three-year grant to support in-depth research on the topic. As part of that effort, reporter Mary Jo Pitzl and our other staff experts investigate the reasons behind the surge in foster children and the systems meant to support and protect them.

Are you part of the system? We want to understand your story. Go to childwelfare.azcentral.com.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

READ MORE:

Insurance coverage for thousands of low-income Arizona kids in jeopardy

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