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Vermont Pushes State Employees To Use CHIP Program For Their Kids

The administration of Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin is encouraging state employees with children to consider dropping their kids from their parents’ health care plan and instead enrolling them in Dr. Dinosaur, Vermont’s version of the state-federal health insurance program for low-income children.

The administration says the change could save state employees a lot of money — and it could reduce the state’s health care costs by millions of dollars.

Several weeks ago, 2,100 state employees with children who meet certain income thresholds received a memo from the Shumlin administration outlining how this option would lead to savings both for the employee and for the state.

Children in households earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for Dr. Dinasaur. For a household of three people, the income cap is roughly $56,000.

An example: A single parent with two kids right now pays about $4,500 a year for  family coverage from the state employees’ health plan. If the kids are shifted over to Dr. Dinosaur, the parent could buy an individual policy and save about $2,000 a year. The state would save about $10,000 on this family’s health insurance.

If half of the eligible state employees made this change, Vermont could save more than $5 million a year.

“It’s an opportunity that we wanted state employees to be able to make a choice about,” said Mark Larson, the commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access. “It does provide an opportunity for coverage to be more affordable for a family and it does provide some opportunity for the state to provide health coverage for the family at less expense to the state.”

The move doesn’t require any new legislation or regulation. It’s a matter of making the state employees who already meet the income requirements aware that they are eligible.

The effort has some detractors, though. Jeff Wennberg, executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, a group that opposes Shumlin’s proposal to implement a single payer system in Vermont, says the plan, by involving the kids of state employees, goes beyond the original concept of Dr. Dinosaur.

“I think a lot of Vermonters ought to take a close look at this and try to decide whether they really feel comfortable shifting some or ultimately all of the coverage that right now is provided privately, onto taxpayers. Is that a direction that we really do support?” Wennberg said.

But Larson says the plan is consistent with the initial policies of the Dr. Dinosaur program.

“There has been no change to the eligibility of Dr. Dinosaur to be able to provide this opportunity to state employees,” said Larson. “This is not an expansion. This is just an option that has historically been available, and we’re simply providing information about it.”

Larson points out that  the federal government pays roughly 70 percent of the costs of the Dr. Dinosaur program, allowing Vermont to save on the costs of insuring state employees’ children.

A number of other states have taken similar steps to enroll the children of qualifying state employees onto the federal CHIP program.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes Vermont Public RadioNPR and Kaiser Health News.

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