By Deborah Baker
SANTA FE — The state Human Services Department would set up a program to help buy health insurance for children of the working poor under legislation endorsed by both the House and the Senate.
The bills, approved Tuesday, are backed by the Richardson administration as one way to tackle the problem of an estimated 400,000 uninsured New Mexicans.
The House-passed measure goes to the Senate and the Senate-passed bill heads to the House. Both houses must pass the same bill before it would reach the governor’s desk.
The bills authorize the Human Services Department to develop rules for a program to help pay private health insurance premiums for New Mexicans who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.
Often, those families can’t afford private insurance or not all family members are covered by insurance that workers in the family may have, according to the bills’ supporters.
The bills specify that the programs be for pregnant women, children under 12 and the older siblings — up to 18 — of children under 12.
But the department plans to focus first on the estimated 5,000 uninsured children who are 5 years old or under and don’t qualify for Medicaid.
The department envisions paying a portion of their premiums — perhaps $100 a month — once the program gets under way.
“This bill is not the only answer. It is one piece of the puzzle that we are trying to address, which is people above that Medicaid level,” said Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Albuquerque, who voted for it.
Currently, children qualify for Medicaid if their parents earn up to 235 percent of the federal poverty level.
The bills don’t contain any funding for the program. Gov. Bill Richardson has asked lawmakers to set aside $5.6 million for it — enough to cover the 5,000 youngest children, according to the administration — although no appropriation for the program has been included in the proposed state budget for next year approved by the House.
The House passed the bill unanimously. The vote in the Senate was 26-9, with critics objecting that the program was too open-ended and the legislation gave the Human Services secretary too much leeway over it. Costs easily could get out of control, opponents said.