Arizona health care for the poor spared

Flagstaff, AZ – Last month the Arizona legislature passed a budget that would have cut hundreds of millions of dollars from health care for the poor. But now it looks like those programs are no longer on the state's chopping block. And many families are relieved to hear that AHCCCS (pronounced "access") and Kids Care are still intact at least for now. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales reports.

Twenty-year-old Brandy Short sits at the kitchen table in her double wide trailer on the east side of Flagstaff. Her sniffling son Benjamin sits on her lap. He has a bad cold. Her other baby has croup.

SHORT: Both of my kids are on antibiotics right now and they're 75 dollars a piece. And there's no way I could afford it if AHCCCS didn't pay for it. There's no way because I'm a single mom and I don't work because I don't want to work to pay daycare so there's no way I could do it without AHCCCS.

AHCCCS or Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System is the state's Medicaid program. During these tough economic times it covers one out of every five Arizonans.

Kids Care covers 40 thousand Arizona children of the working poor. It used to cover Brandy's 14 year old sister, who has diabetes. But she no longer qualifies, because her mom got a job paying 11 dollars an hour plus health benefits at a grocery store bakery. So now it costs Brandy's mom more than 500 dollars a month for three bottles of insulin, until she can get her daughter covered by her insurance. Kids Care used to pay for it all.

SHORT: They paid for her insulin and any time she got hospitalized they paid for all of that. Any time she gets hospitalized she's in the hospital for a couple days because of her diabetes it's like $25,000 after you add it all up. That's a lot of money. My mom's a single mom too and she has three kids and she helps raise my kids.

Last month Governor Brewer signed a measure ending AHCCCS eligibility for about 300-thousand adults and cutting Kids Care all together. But Arizona's Medicaid program will most likely continue to cover families like the Shorts because the federal health care reform act prevents those cuts.

AHCCCS spokeswoman Monica Coury says now state lawmakers are tasked with coming up with another 2011 budget fix.

COURY: I don't envy the position the legislature is in. They thought they had wrapped up the budget and balanced the state's books. Reform changed that scenario quite a bit so now they have to find a way to balance the budget in light of reform. Medicaid is such a big part of the state's economy and the health and vitality of the state's health care delivery system so it would be difficult to imagine the state without those Medicaid dollars.

Lawmakers would have saved almost 400 million dollars by cutting Kids Care and trimming AHCCCS.

But republican state Representative John Kavanagh says opting out of Medicaid and State Children's Health Insurance Program dollars - better known as S-CHIP -- isn't really an option. He says Washington takes money from Arizonans and then agrees to give some of it back -- with strings attached -- knowing states will do whatever is necessary to get it.

KAVANAGH: It's like a heroin pusher, giving the drugs to his client cheaply in the beginning until the client is hooked. And then, the ax, falls, you're hooked, and they have you where they want you. The federal government has us where it wants us. We can't opt out.

The feds actually kick in a 3 to 1 match for Kids Care or 7 billion dollars in annual Medicaid funds. Democrat state representative Kyrsten Sinema:

SINEMA: It doesn't mean that we're just going to lose our 3-1 match for CHIP. We will forfeit all federal Medicaid dollars for everything and we will still be obligated to provide care for those federally mandated populations under Medicaid.

State lawmakers are counting on a federal stimulus dollar extension to pay for health care and fill the budget gap. The U-S House and Senate adopted separate bills with provisions to extend enhanced Medicaid stimulus funding through June 2011. Both chambers must adopt the legislation for the 25 billion dollar assistance to take effect. Congress will reconvene Monday.

Also, Governor Jan Brewer just announced that Arizona will join fifteen other states in suing to block the health care overhaul bill.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.