Children's Health Insurance & Legislative Updates
By KERA News & Wire Services
Dallas, TX – CHIP EXPANSION
The House on Friday voted 87-55 to send to the Senate a bill expanding eligibility for the Children's Health Insurance Program - but not before making a couple last minute changes.
Texas currently ranks first in the nation in uninsured children, according to a study released earlier this year. Several measures have been proposed this session to expand access to and eligibility for CHIP and children's Medicaid. Supporters of the expansions say they will help the many families who make too much to afford the state health care programs, but not enough to afford insurance on their own.
Families who make less than around $44,000 a year, or 200 percent of the federal poverty level, currently qualify for the joint state-federal funded health insurance program.
The measure by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, would allow people making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level - around $66,000 for a family of four - to qualify for CHIP. Families between 200 percent and 300 percent of the poverty level would have to pay some fees in a partial buy-in on a sliding scale. The bill also allows those making up to 400 percent to fully buy in to the CHIP program if they can't get insurance elsewhere.
But children's Medicaid - the program for the poorest Texans - lost an amendment that would have let families stay in the program for 12 months without reapplying instead of 6 months. Coleman said though he supports extending eligibility to 12 months to keep families from being bumped off the rolls, the money for the expansion is just not there in the state budget.
Representatives also adjusted some provision on what kinds of assets can be counted toward eligibility. Coleman's proposal now heads to the Senate for consideration.
CHILD BOOSTER SEATS
Children under age 8 would have to be secured in a booster seat when riding in a passenger vehicle under a bill given final approval by the Senate and sent to Gov. Rick Perry
Current law requires booster seats for children under 5 and shorter than 3 feet tall. If allowed by Perry to become law, it would apply to children under 8 or 4-feet-9 or shorter.
Supporters say seat belts do not fit children properly and can injure or kill them in an accident.
Starting in June 2010, people who don't follow the law would face a $25 fine, which would be used to buy booster seats for low-income families. Until then, police officers would only issue warnings. Subsequent violations could result in fines up to $250.
Experts say children between 4 and 8 who are using adult restraints are likely to suffer severe head, spinal cord and internal injuries during accidents and that booster seats can reduce that risk of injury by more than 50 percent.
Opponents had argued that it would be difficult for some parents to comply, especially if they car pool or have to unexpectedly arrange for alternate transportation.
About 40 other states already require parents to follow the age and height requirements in the bill.
The Texas House has adopted new, stricter guidelines over how corporate money can be used in elections. The bill, approved on a 71-63 vote, would ban corporate and union money from being used on political attack ads. Political parties and political action committees would only be permitted to spend corporate and union money on administrative costs.
"We are allowing undisclosed corporate contributions to flood our political campaigns," said Rep. Todd Smith, who sponsored the bill. "We should all be concerned about that."
Opponents, mostly conservative Republicans, argued that the measure hampers free speech.
CELL PHONE BANS
The House took aim at drivers on cell phones Friday, sending two bills limiting use of cell phones while driving to the Senate. The first would prevent any driver from using a cell phone while driving in an active school zone. The bill does allow use of hands-free devices, or a regular cell phone if used in an emergency.
The second proposal takes a stricter stance against teen drivers, banning anyone under the age of 18 from calling or texting on a cell phone while driving - even if they are using a hands-free device. The bill also includes an exception for emergency calls.
PRESERVING HISTORIC NAMES
A proposal to keep the names of certain colleges honoring historical Texas figures - such as Stephen F. Austin, Sul Ross, Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar - won final approval in the House on Friday.
The measure instructs the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to maintain a registry of colleges and universities named for established Texans of history and bans the governing board of those colleges from changing their names in a way that removes the historic person's name.
Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, and Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, engaged in a verbal showdown as Solomons set out to thwart bills by Miller involving local groundwater conservation districts.
Even though the bills were on a "local and consent" calendar, meaning they weren't expected to have opposition, Solomons made it clear he would ask questions for a lengthy period to prevent passage of the bills, allowed under a House rule. Miller accused him of seeking revenge for a previous dispute.
"I understand that you are a spiteful and revengeful person. That's what this is about," Miller told Solomons.
After the debate, Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas called it "a fine display of state government in action" as he welcomed a group of school children from his area to the Capitol.
Later, Rep. Kirk England, D-Grand Prairie, faced off against Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Rockwall. She accused him of trying to kill her local bill because she supported political opponents of his.
"This is all vindictiveness. This is unbelievable," Laubenberg said.
House members were pleased to hear Friday that Republican Rep. Edmund Kuempel of Seguin appeared to be showing improvement at an Austin hospital after suffering a massive heart attack earlier in the week.
Kuempel, who had been in a medically induced coma, was starting to respond to doctors by blinking when he was asked to, said Rep. Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican.
"He is responding. He's coming out of the coma. Thank all of you for your prayers," Geren said. Later Geren said Kuempel had moved a foot and attempted to talk to one of his children.
"The family is very, very excited," Geren said.
The Senate passed legislation Friday permitting state health authorities to keep genetic material gathered when newborns are screened for diseases. The bill allows parents to opt out of the retention, in which case the state would have to destroy the samples within 60 days.
Proponents said retaining the genetic material will help researchers come up with cures and treatments for diseases. Information from the samples that does not identify the child could be used for statistical reports or research.
Samples that identify the child would be heavily restricted and treated like confidential medical records. The bill still faces a vote in the House before it can become law, records indicate.