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Bill Would Let Low-Income Parents Re-Enroll in Medicaid Program

Christie rule-change bumped more than 20,000 from FamilyCare rolls.

William Murtha (left), his daughter Janet Waldron, and Sen. Joseph Vitale testify at the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing.
William Murtha (left), his daughter Janet Waldron, and Sen. Joseph Vitale testify at the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing.

A little-noticed rule that cut 21,000 state residents from the New Jersey FamilyCare health insurance program would be reversed by a bill advancing with bipartisan support in the Legislature.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved S-1758 on Monday, a bill that would allow low-income parents to re-enroll in FamilyCare.

The federal- and state-funded Medicaid program currently covers parents whose income is less than 133 percent of the poverty level, or $30,725 for a family of four. Gov. Chris Christie reduced the maximum income in 2010 from 200 percent of the poverty line, or $46,100 for a family of four.

When the Christie administration reduced FamilyCare eligibility, 21,000 residents were also removed from the program under a new regulation that program recipients couldn’t have more than 30 percent of their income from “unearned” sources, including child support and unemployment insurance.

The bill would drop that regulation and allow residents who became ineligible due to unearned income to re-enroll in FamilyCare. It would benefit both new enrollees who are below 133 percent of the poverty line and former enrollees who have incomes between 133 percent and 200 percent of the poverty level, since members of that group who were enrolled in FamilyCare in 2010 were included in a “grandfather clause” allowing them to stay in the program.

Janet Waldron, a single mother of three who lives in Denville, told the committee that she lost her health insurance as a result of the rule change. She is studying to be a registered nurse but is temporarily disabled due to injuries from a September car crash. While she has no earned income, the monthly $1,080 in child support she receives from her ex-husband made her ineligible for the program.

“I’m being dis-enrolled from New Jersey FamilyCare because of a clause of unearned income. It’s being counted against me, but this is my child support and this is not my income,” said Waldron. She said her husband began making child-support payments three years ago, but is 25 months behind.

The measure “will help and protect thousands of New Jersey people just like me,” she told committee members. “Due to unfortunate circumstances, they’re being dis-enrolled. Many of these residents are currently ill, need medication or cancer treatments, and due to disenrollment may become critically ill. Please pass Bill 1758 -- it is vital to many lives.”

Mountain Lake resident William Murtha, Waldron’s father, said his daughter has always worked to support her children whenever she was able to do so.

Bill sponsor Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) said legislators did not know that residents would lose FamilyCare eligibility due to the unearned-income rule when Christie reduced the income eligibility.

“This little change in the way it was calculated made a tremendous difference to the thousands of lives of those who were enrolled in the program,” Vitale said. “This bill corrects that. It doesn’t matter, the source of the income. It’s certainly not a lottery ticket, because if you hit the lottery, you’re not going to be in the FamilyCare program.”

Vitale said it doesn’t make sense to remove single mothers who receive much of their income from child support from the program. “They’re out of the program because the source of the income was unearned. In my view at least, income is income.”

Vitale, the sponsor of the FamilyCare law in 2005, said the law has benefited the state, both by providing residents with appropriate medical care and by reducing low-income residents’ reliance on charity care at hospitals.

“It’s a much smarter investment to give someone a health insurance policy,” than to allow them to rely on charity care, Vitale said.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said the bill made financial sense, due to savings to the state-funded charity care.

“I just wanted to make sure we make note of the other side of the financial ledger, when we figure the cost of this,” Weinberg said.

The bill received bipartisan support, with every member of the committee who was present voting in favor of advancing it.

Sen. Anthony R. Bucco (R-Morris and Somerset) said he was glad Vitale sponsored the bill.

“It’s important that we do not let these people hang, more or less, that they do not have the FamilyCare program,” said Bucco. Waldron is a resident of his district and thanked him for his support.

Vitale expressed hope that the bill would become law.

“I’m hopeful that the governor didn’t realize that this part of the change he made to the eligibility had this kind of consequence,” Vitale said.

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