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Budget Panel Expands Health Insurance Program


SACRAMENTO — The legislative committee negotiating a new state budget approved an expansion of a popular health insurance program Tuesday even as it struggled to close a $23.6-billion budget gap.

The same committee also approved a proposal sought by Gov. Gray Davis and Republican legislators to reinstate procedures that require adults to fill out forms every quarter to remain enrolled in Medi-Cal. The change, which is opposed by health care advocates for the poor, is expected to save the state $155 million.

Members of the Senate-Assembly budget conference committee split along party lines in approving a $50-million appropriation so that the Healthy Families program, which insures low-income children, can begin covering as many as 300,000 parents starting Oct. 1.

"I think it's terrific," said Jim Keddy, executive director of the Pacific Institute for Community Organization, a coalition of faith-based groups that has lobbied to expand health coverage for the uninsured. "For the first time low-income working families will be able to get health care coverage for the whole family."

Davis announced in January that he would support the expansion of the program to cover parents but, faced with a growing budget gap, he did not include money for the expansion in the revised budget he released last month.

Democratic legislators, particularly in the state Assembly, had flagged the expansion as a key priority.

The Davis administration had no comment Tuesday on the action by the committee, which consists of two Republicans and four Democrats.

Sen. Richard Ackerman, the Irvine Republican who handles budget matters for his caucus, voted against the expansion.

Ackerman also took issue with committee actions to earmark $25 million for trauma centers and $31 million for primarily public and teaching hospitals that serve a disproportionate number of poor patients.

The changes must be approved by each house of the Legislature, which is likely to miss Saturday's deadline for delivering a new budget to Davis.

The conference committee has yet to make decisions on dozens of spending proposals. It also hasn't settled the politically sensitive matter of tax increases.

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