Plan would expand coverage

CARSON CITY — State senate Democrats on Tuesday announced they will pursue a plan to expand health care coverage to more Nevadans, including an expansion of the Nevada Check-Up program for children of low-income parents, in the 2009 session.

Senate Minority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said the four-point plan will focus in large part on lowering the cost of health care by covering more people. Another part of the plan is to help people get easier access to their health care records, he said.

There are 450,000 Nevadans, 17.1 percent of the state population, without health insurance, which puts a burden on the health care system that all residents must pay for, Horsford said.

Expanding Nevada Check-Up would require a commitment of state money in a time of shortfalls, but the federal government would share in the cost, he said. And providing health care coverage to more children, with a goal of a 10 percent increase from the current enrollment by 2012, will save money in the long run, Horsford said.

The 2007 Legislature budgeted for an enrollment in Check-Up of a little more than 30,000, but 25,000 are enrolled currently.

The program was funded for about $90 million in the current two-year budget, but that was before spending reductions took place. Of that total, $23 million was from the state general fund.

The current split is 65 percent covered by the federal government and 35 percent by the state.

“One important thing we can all do together despite these difficult economic times is improve access and transparency in heath care for children, seniors and employees of small businesses,” he said.

Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, said another part of the plan will be to help small-business owners to offer coverage to their workers. One possibility would be to help small businesses to form groups to bargain for better health care rates and coverage, he said.

Allison Copening, a Democratic candidate for the Senate District 6 seat held by Republican Bob Beers, said another part of the plan, a mandate to insurance companies to provide coverage to children with autism, is a money saver in the long term.

With a diagnosis rate of one case of autism for every 150 children, the issue is one that will not go away, she said.

Horsford said Democrats, who are working to take control of the Senate for the first time since 1991, want to work with Gov. Jim Gibbons, Republican lawmakers and the Assembly to improve the quality of health care.

A pickup of one seat would give Democrats an 11-10 edge in the upper house.

Both Horsford and Schneider are running for re-election.

Sen. Joe Heck, R-Henderson, an emergency room doctor who is running for re-election in a district targeted by Democrats, reacted favorably to the plan.

“I am glad to see them joining me in fighting for affordable health care, an issue I have been working on for the past four years,” he said.

Heck said he pursued a measure last session that would have provided help to some parents of autistic children. But the Family Opportunity Act — which would allow some parents with medically fragile children who have exhausted their heath insurance to buy into the Medicaid program — did not win approval, he said.

Heck said he has pushed to cover more children in Check-Up as a member of the state Task Force for the Fund for a Healthy Nevada.

About half of the 60,000 children thought to be eligible for the federal-state program in Nevada are enrolled, he said.

The key will be in the details of the broad-brush plan outlined by Democrats, Heck said.

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