JUNEAU Gov. Frank Murkowski has signed legislation that could keep about 1,300 children and pregnant women from receiving free health care over the next year, at a savings to the state of about $1.75 million.
The bill changes the income level at which families qualify for Denali KidCare.
That's a program that provides health care for children and pregnant women in families that make too much money to receive traditional welfare but generally don't have health insurance through their jobs. It's paid for with federal and state funding.
Currently, families making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level for Alaska can qualify. That amounts to an annual income of $45,996 for a family of four, not counting Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.
The Republican-dominated Legislature decided to change that eligibility level to 175 percent of the poverty level or $40,260 for a family of four.
''We wanted to take what we thought was a reasonable step of controlling the overall expense of the program,'' said Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole.
The new law also freezes income limits for eligibility so they do not automatically increase if the federal poverty level changes. This could create more savings in future years as inflation ratchets the federal poverty level upward.
The Murkowski administration had asked the Legislature to freeze the current income limits, but had spoken against lowering the limit to 175 percent of poverty. Still, the governor signed the bill Monday.
''It obviously wasn't the approach that we had proposed to take, which would have gradually made fewer people eligible over time,'' said Murkowski spokesman John Manly. ''But it was what we got and he went ahead and decided to go with it. It does represent substantial savings over time.''
Democrats, who opposed the bill, had urged Murkowski to veto it.
''I believe Denali KidCare is some of the best money we could spend,'' said Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage. ''Kids getting preventive health care is a money saver in the long run.''
The state estimates with the new law, about 1,200 children and 120 women could lose health care coverage in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The bill takes effect in September. Jon Sherwood, of the state Division of Medical Assistance, said pregnant women enrolled before that time will not lose coverage until after they have delivered their babies.
Children's eligibility for the program is reviewed every six months, so those whose family income disqualifies them under the new guidelines won't lose benefits until their review date. Review dates vary, depending on when a child was signed up, Sherwood said.
The bill also freezes the income level at which Alaskans can qualify for nursing home care or similar home-based services at $19,872 a year.
Because inflation is expected to raise incomes of people who might have applied for Denali KidCare and nursing home care, over time fewer people will qualify for the programs and savings are expected to grow.
By 2009, the administration estimates the bill will save $7.1 million in state funds and $15.1 million in federal funds. Over that time, it will result in the state providing health care to 205 fewer women, 2,014 fewer children and 50 fewer adults with serious enough health problems to require nursing home care.
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