President Obama just lent a hand to the advocates in Austin who have been arguing for 12-month eligibility for families signing up for Medicaid, as opposed to having to re-up every six months. Obama today signed the SCHIP Reauthorization Act, which rewards states that reach more children with Medicaid. Currently, Texas has an estimated 500,ooo uninsured children who are eligible for the program. The Texas Finish Line Campaign, organized by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas and Texans Care for Children, had hoped this session to convince lawmakers to adopt the 12-month eligibility rule. It’s always been a tough fight, with fiscally conservative budget writers winning on the argument that the 6-month rule saves the state lots money. With the new federal law, the math just changed—and advocates can argue the state will be leaving money on the table by sticking to the 6-month rule. The Reauthorization Act also gives financial incentives for another Texas Finish Line agenda item: permitting families over the 200 percent of poverty level to buy in to CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) coverage on a sliding scale. Other state-administered social service programs are also in for an overhaul. The stimulus package under consideration by Congress may include matching grants to states that expand their TANF (which provides temporary cash payments) caseloads. As the New York Times noted this week, many states have been seeing reductions in TANF caseloads, despite the worsening economy, because the Clinton Administration’s welfare reform legislation included financial incentives for states to move people from welfare to work. Sounds great, but many states have employed harsh rules to throw people off the welfare rolls for things like failing to immunize their children or allowing them to skip school. (When I heard that, I had some unpleasant flashbacks about a particular high school senior who very nearly didn’t graduate because of spotty—make that rare—attendance.) Guess which state has been an absolute champ at reducing its TANF caseloads? You betcha…Texas, at a whopping 15 percent last year. Since 2003, when the Legislature adopted its rules, the TANF caseload has dropped from 700,000 families to about 100,000. Amazingly, the number of Texans living in poverty—3.6 million—has remained the same. Interesting side note: The TANF program is a block grant, so the state gets the same amount of money from the feds—about $500 million—despite the drop in caseloads. Lawmakers have found other worthy ways besides TANF payments to use the money: child protection, work force training, etc. Perfectly legal, but definitely a diversion of the money’s purpose. Think we’ll ever hear our governor condemn the practice of diverted funds when it comes to protecting welfare payments?
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Weekly dispatches from the middle of the road of Texas politics.
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