Arizona children could lose big under Obamacare repeal

GOP governor: Keep this part of Obamacare
GOP governor: Keep this part of Obamacare

Like any college student, Vanessa Ramirez never expected chemotherapy would be part of her busy school schedule.

"I don't have any history of cancer in my family, so it wasn't something I was on the lookout for," Ramirez said, sitting outside the library of her alma mater Arizona State University.

Ramirez was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 23. Now more than a decade later, she's healthy and so are her children.

"But there's also emergencies that happen. I have two young kids who are running around. They are rambunctious. I have a daughter who likes to climb trees," Ramirez said, explaining the priority she places on health insurance.

Overcoming her illness at such a young age, Ramirez doesn't take health care for granted. And the Affordable Care Act has given her that security. She bought insurance through healthcare.gov, even with her preexisting condition, and her children got covered, too.

Related: Repealing Obamacare affects everyone

"I want them to be able to have health insurance and doctors to monitor them, in case something unfortunate comes up," Ramirez said.

Ramirez's kids are covered through the federal Children's Health Insurance Program, which is for working families who don't quite qualify for Medicaid. Arizona's version is called KidsCare.

vanessa ramirez
Vanessa Ramirez's kids are covered through the federal Children's Health Insurance Program, which Obamacare helped revive.

Arizona lawmakers froze enrollment back in 2010. And until last year, Arizona was the only state without an active program. But Obamacare helped revive it by covering the entire cost in Arizona and a handful of other states, at least through 2017.

"A lot of people don't realize that a repeal of the Affordable Care Act could wipe out KidsCare that we just got back," said Dana Wolfe Naimark with advocacy group the Children's Action Alliance.

Since Gov. Doug Ducey and the legislature reopened KidsCare last year, enrollment has already surpassed 13,000. But now Naimark worries about the fallout if the ACA is repealed.

"It would be up to the state legislature whether they could invest state dollars to keep it going, or whether the coverage would go away," Naimark said.

Related: The skinny on block grants -- the heart of the GOP's

In recent years, Arizona has had one of the highest rates of uninsured children in the country. But Obamacare has begun to change that, bringing coverage to thousands of kids. It was also one of the Republican-led states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA but only after fierce in-fighting about growing federal influence; the same was true for reinstating KidsCare. State law halts or shuts down Medicaid expansion and KidsCare if federal funding dips too low.

"Whenever you take a look at some of these top-down Washington approaches, you really do lard up these insurance policies with a lot of benefits that individuals and families would not go out and buy on their own," said Naomi Lopez Bauman of the conservative Goldwater Institute. Her organization sued to stop the state's Medicaid expansion.

One of the proposals favored by Republican leadership is giving states a fixed amount of money, called a block grant, and letting them have more say in who and what they cover. Bauman said with enough flexibility, she believes the state could save money.

"How do you make it easier and better for individuals and families to get the coverage and care that best meets their own needs and preferences?" Bauman said.

But other conservatives say changing how these programs are funded could backfire. Heather Carter is a Republican state representative who voted for Medicaid expansion and for restarting KidsCare.

"What I hope does not happen is that decisions are made nationally that actually penalize us for being efficient and effective," she said.

Related: Why GOP governors like Medicaid under Obamacare

Carter says Arizona already has one of the lowest-cost Medicaid programs in the country. And Medicaid officials here caution that block grants could actually shortchange the state because it has a fast growing population and a large share of people living around the poverty line. Less federal funding would most likely force lawmakers to cut back services.

"We will have to make very difficult decisions in Arizona on who will and will not receive coverage," Carter said.

It would cost Arizona hundreds of millions of dollars to keep everyone on Medicaid covered like they are now. And even Democrats like state Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs concede that's not realistic.

"I don't see anyone in the state coming forward and saying we will cover this, because don't have the money to do it," Hobbs said.

Arizona has more children enrolled in the federal marketplace than almost any other state. Add in Medicaid and KidsCare, and 130,000 kids or more could be at risk of losing their coverage if Congress doesn't come up with a replacement that includes similar coverage.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KJZZ, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News is national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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