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Fits and starts

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Why is it so hard for state lawmakers to do the right thing?

In January, state officials froze enrollments in North Carolina's Health Choice insurance program for low-income kids--a move that forced more than 3,000 needy children onto a waiting list. Although the federal government was offering $21 million to expand the program, Tar Heel lawmakers were unwilling to come up with the required $7 million in matching state funds that would have covered another 19,000 children.

Press reports about the situation--including in The Independent--led to an official change of heart. The budget passed recently by the state Senate includes money for ending the freeze and expanding Health Choice.

But a "special provision" in that budget prevents the program from spending a dime more than the level budgeted for this year--a decision Health Choice supporters worry could lead to future enrollment freezes. In addition, a two-month waiting period is still in effect for the program, which means eligible children--even those with serious health problems--are denied immediate access to coverage.

The waiting period was created to prevent parents from dropping private insurance and signing their children up for Health Choice. But that's an option affordable health-care advocates say few parents pursue.

"The waiting period has mostly become a barrier for parents with inadequate or truly unaffordable current health coverage," notes Adam Searing, of the N.C. Health Access Coalition.

A bill to eliminate the waiting period for Health Choice passed the state Senate and is now before the House Appropriations Committee. But the political ups and downs have already done some damage.

Searing notes that since the enrollment freeze went into effect, 3,000 children have dropped out of Health Choice.

"Stopping and restarting enrollment in the program is not as simple as stopping and restarting a car," he adds.

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