Happy not to be in last place (again)

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By The Staff

New Mexico is so often near the bottom of any national ranking on child well-being, that we find ourselves in the sad position of saying “thank goodness for Mississippi,” or “thank goodness for Louisiana,” because without two impoverished states, we’d more often than not end up in last place.

When it comes to health coverage for our children, we’ve been able to say “thank goodness for Texas,” because they’ve been the only state that ranks lower than we do for our inability to provide health care to our most vulnerable residents.

We almost lost that right when Texas almost succeeded in making us 50th in children’s health coverage. Texas lawmakers were poised to expand their Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and cover more uninsured children.

That was, until a misguided plan to reduce spending gained momentum. They would have been able to cover more kids because of the federal stimulus funds.

But, like New Mexico, Texas decided to turn away much of the stimulus funding for children’s health care. That frees it up for the other 48 states to cover their children instead.

Why would the great state of New Mexico turn down federal money? CHIP money – like Medicaid – requires a funding match provided by the state.

The needier the state, the bigger the federal match. Not surprisingly, New Mexico gets a high match – almost three dollars to every one dollar we pony up.

As part of the economic stimulus, though, Congress increased the match and, thanks in large part to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico got one of the biggest raises.

Over the two years, we could get the federal government to cover more than 90 percent of the cost of the children we enrolled, if only we’d make the required investment in state money.

The federal CHIP money, along with some of the federal Medicaid money, goes into the state’s New Mexikids program, which provides health care for children of low- and moderate-income families who would not otherwise have insurance.

New Mexico has a long history on leaving federal CHIP and Medicaid money on the table. In eight of the last 10 years of the federal CHIP Act, New Mexico chose not to enroll all eligible children, leaving hundreds of millions of federal dollars untapped.

Now we’re at the beginning of another federal CHIP Act and New Mexico is poised to lose as much as $111 million a year in federal dollars.

New Mexico has had its great moments regarding children’s health care. Additional funding to cover more children through our New Mexikids program was passed by our Legislature last August in a special session.

But it was the first thing state leaders took back when revenues slowed. With it, they took back the oft-made promise that New Mexico would cover every one of its children.

Granted, the Legislature never made that promise. But our governor has, and he’s voiced it more than once. Sadly, he’s never put his political muscle behind it.

Neither did he make it a budget priority, even back in the day when he had plenty to spend. Health care coverage for kids in New Mexico has remained flat for all but the last year when there was a small increase.

What the governor and the Legislature have done is approved one task force after another to recommend ways to cover more New Mexicans. Interestingly, these groups have all recommended that the first step in providing health care coverage for all – not to mention the cheapest and easiest – is maximizing the Medicaid program.

This is not a tough conclusion to come to when the federal government pays more than three-quarters of the cost.

But the excuse always is that we don’t have the money. Never mind that the Legislature would not so much as look at any potential revenue-raisers during the last session.

Of course, many state budgets are tight, but some states are finding ways to expand health care for children. Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington recently reaffirmed their commitment to cover all children by approving substantial new funding, while Montana, Kansas and Arkansas have all passed huge new funding increases for children’s health coverage.

Of course, every one of those states already had us beat in terms of children’s coverage. Which sadly brings us back to our mantra, “thank goodness for Texas.?

Sharon Kayne is Communications Director for New Mexico Voices for Children.