Mo. Governor Pushes for New Health Plan for Lower-income Families

Mo. Gov. Matt Blunt said the number of uninsured Missourians could be reduced by nearly one-third under a plan he outlined this week to provide government-subsidized health care to lower-income families.

The Republican, speaking at a St. Louis health center, said the “Insure Missouri” plan could provide affordable health insurance to nearly 200,000 Missourians. Democrats immediately attacked the plan as an inadequate effort to cut the ranks of uninsured in the state.

The new program will be phased in over a 15-month period. Eventually, Blunt said, it will provide health care coverage for Missouri families who earn up to 185 percent of the poverty level _ or $38,203 for a family of four.

Blunt said Insure Missouri will be available to working parents and caregivers with children who live at or below the poverty level ($20,650 for a family of four) starting early next year; to working adults who are not Medicare-eligible starting next summer; and to small business owners and employees after that.

The insurance program will be administered by private companies, said Brian Kinkade, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Social Services.

Kinkade said the state will set a price it is willing to pay for the insurance plan, and will start selecting companies to provide the insurance policies beginning some time next month.

The first phase is projected to cover 54,531 people and is expected to cost less than $50 million from when it begins in February through the end of the state fiscal year next June, said Steve Renne, deputy director of the Department of Social Services. Of that, just $5 million would come from the state’s general revenues, $14.5 million would come from an existing tax on hospitals and $30 million from the federal government.

As the program is phased-in, costs would rise. The plan envisions the state’s general revenue cost being capped at $46.8 million annually, Renne said. That would comprise just a portion of the total estimated cost of $631 million in 2010, with the bulk of the money coming from the federal government, hospital taxes and patients’ premiums.

Participants would contribute an amount based on their income. Blunt’s office said a family of four making $17,500 annually would pay no premiums and would make co-payments of up to $3 per visit. A family of four making $35,000 would have payments of no more than $145 per month.

Democrats were quick to criticize the plan, which a party spokesman called a “half measure.”

“This is an admission by Gov. Blunt that his Medicaid cuts caused a health care crisis in Missouri,” Democratic spokesman Jack Cardetti said in a statement, referring to Blunt’s 2005 budget cuts that pushed about 100,000 people off state Medicaid rolls.

Cardetti also criticized the decision to have private companies administer the plan.

“Only Matt Blunt would call lining the pockets of the Missouri health insurance industry health care reform,” Cardetti said.

Attorney General Jay Nixon, who is Blunt’s expected rival in the 2008 governor’s race, said Blunt should simply reinstate his original budget cuts.

“Instead, he has put forward a misguided plan that has already failed in other states. It takes money directly from our poorest families and puts it in the pockets of the HMOs and big insurance companies,” Nixon said in a statement.

In August, figures from the U.S. Census showed that the number of Missourians without health insurance jumped 16 percent _ three times the national average _ rising by 104,000 residents to a total of 772,000. The jump was expected after those more than 100,000 Medicaid recipients were dropped in 2005.

Also in August, the state rolled out its Mo HealthNet program, designed to replace Medicaid. But critics said the changes do virtually nothing to help those who were bumped from Medicaid two years ago.