Bills to Help The Poor Closer to Becoming Law

Bills to Help The Poor Closer to Becoming Law

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- As the Utah Legislature enters the last full week of the 2003 general session, bills to help the state's poor are closer to becoming law.

While the state continues to struggle with tough economic times and tight budgets, advocates for the poor say they're hopeful that several pieces of legislation will be approved.

"We've had support for these issues like we've never had before," said Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities. "They understand what the human cost really is."

In bad economic times, those needing government services -- such as Medicaid and insurance for children in low-income families -- increases.

A bill to protect those on Medicaid may be debated on the House floor as early as Monday. Medicaid is a health insurance program for those with low incomes and other needy people, which is funded by state and federal money.

As of March 1, all low-income senior citizens and those with disabilities earning more than the federal poverty level -- which is $553 a month for one person -- can keep only $398 a month to still qualify for benefits. The rest of their money must be paid to the provider before the Medicaid benefits begin.

The Department of Health made the cut because officials said they had no choice but to reduce eligibility for Medicaid to 75 percent of the poverty level.

A bill, sponsored by Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, would restore the funding to 100 percent of the poverty level. It then moves the "spend-down" level for benefits from $398 a month to $738 a month.

"It's a problem we've seen for the last few years," Lockhart said. "This is forcing people into deeper poverty and discouraging self-reliance."

The move would cost the state $5.6 million. And the federal government's match would add $16 million more to the program, Lockhart said. Although the lawmakers support the bill's purpose, Lockhart hopes they will follow through and approve spending the money needed for the legislation, she said.

"This is life and death," Hilton said. "This isn't less furniture in the office building. This is turning on the heat when its 32 degrees outside or buying heart medicine."

By midweek, the Senate also is expected to debate a bill that would divert more money from the state's tobacco fund to the Children's Health Insurance Program, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. David Hogue, R-Riverton.

By taking $1.5 million from the settlement, the CHIP program can care for 4,000 more children, bringing enrollment to 30,000 Utah children, and restore the program's dental benefits that were cut last year.

These are children whose families don't qualify for Medicare but can't afford private insurance or it isn't offered through their employers, Hogue said. The average child is enrolled in CHIP for 11 months.

The legislation has already won House approval, on a 56-14 vote, and Hogue expects similar support in the Senate.

In addition, Rep. Roz McGee, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring a bill that would take the entire tobacco settlement fund for two years and dedicate the $27 million that would have gone into it to fund Medicaid.

This measure has been approved by a House committee and is awaiting House debate.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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