PHOENIX - A fight is intensifying in the Arizona Legislature over the Senate leader's refusal to restore a program providing health insurance to poor children, a stance that would maintain the state's position as the only one in the nation that doesn't participate in the plan.
Advocates who want the program restarted rallied at the Capitol on Monday in a last-ditch effort. Arizona froze its KidsCare program in 2010 to save money during a state budget crunch. It once covered more than 63,000 children, but fewer than 1,000 now have the insurance.
Senate President Andy Biggs has blocked the proposal despite it passing overwhelmingly in the House because he's opposed to the Affordable Care Act and is worried the federal government will cut payments and force Arizona to pick up more of the tab.
Backers note the federal government is paying for 100 percent of the plan through 2017, and the proposal allows the state to stop the program if federal funding drops.
"What we're talking about is a population that Obamacare is already supposed to cover," Biggs said Monday. "And when people say it's free, it really isn't free, is it, because it's a taxpayer-funded program. So when we start talking about taxpayer-funded program, the question is it state taxes or is it federal taxes, but they're all coming from our taxpayers any way you look at it."
Biggs said in interviews with The Associated Press and on Arizona PBS' Horizon public affairs show last week that he has no intention of allowing House Bill 2309 to move forward. It passed the House on a 47-12 vote on March 2.
Biggs previously said it isn't that easy to cut off insurance if federal funding drops once 30,000 or so children are insured.
"What you do is you create a constituency of 30,000 to 50,000, could be as many as 50,000 people," Biggs said last week. "And now you pull the trigger and take them off? The answer is that's not going to happen. Nobody will pull that trigger."
The bill is sponsored by an Arizona House Republican who says the parents of eligible children are the working poor, people making $11 or $12 an hour who make too much to qualify for the state's Medicaid program but who do not qualify or can't afford for subsidized health insurance on the federal marketplace.
"Those children, this is what we're here for, is to help the working poor," Rep. Regina Cobb, a Kingman Republican, said at Monday's rally. "These are families, of a mom and a dad where the dad's the only worker and doesn't make but $9 or $10 an hour and can't afford health insurance. Or this is a mom, a single mom, with a child or two, who is making a decision on whether or not to have heat, whether or not to pay rent, or whether to have health insurance."
Children whose families earn between 138 and 200 percent of the federal poverty line would gain insurance under the plan.
At a media availability Monday, Gov. Doug Ducey said his budget priorities are K-12 education and the state child welfare agency. He would not say if he would support the restoration.
KidsCare, he said, "would be or may be part of the ongoing budget negotiations," with lawmakers in the House and Senate.
Participants at Monday's rally included parents, pediatricians, nurses, faith and women's groups and the Children's Action Alliance, a nonprofit group.