WASHINGTON — Low-income young adults and expectant mothers may also get to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a federal child health insurance program.

Congress will consider reauthorization of the decade-old Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, in 2007. That's when Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., plans to press new bills that would add pregnant women and adults 23 and under to the list of beneficiaries.

Since its start in 1997, the $5 billion plan has reduced the number of uninsured children in America by one-third, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The program is designed to pay insurance for children whose families cannot afford it but whose incomes make them ineligible for Medicaid.

Arkansas uses CHIP money to help insure about 350,000 children in its ARKids First insurance program. The state combines CHIP and Medicaid dollars to pay for the program.

Lincoln said young adults make up a disproportionately large share of the nation's uninsured. Families of young adults face a high risk of large out-of-pocket costs because many adults just starting their careers find health insurance inaccessible or unaffordable, she added.

Arkansas' senior senator advocated CHIP expansion during a Health Care Subcommittee meeting of the Senate Committee on Finance last week. While lawmakers at that meeting lauded the success of the program, they also called for more money to balance growing health care costs.

Coverage will fall from 4.4 million children this year to 2.9 million in 2012 if funding levels stay constant, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"The proof will be in the pudding whether they step up to the plate next year when we reauthorize it and we see if they recognize the need and value of this investment," Lincoln said. "I think if you look at this program and the value of it and the return on those dollars, I think it's solid."

Broadening insurance coverage will lead to better care because beneficiaries will be more likely to visit medical providers, Lincoln said. With that, fewer emergency room visits and hospital stays should lower health costs.

Lincoln said CHIP administrators should push beneficiaries to get health screenings for newborns. She said 40,000 infants born in Arkansas this year will fail to be screened for a complete battery of disorders.

Arkansas uses at least some of its CHIP funding for prenatal care, said state Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Julie Munsell.

"If we can get better prenatal care and better birth outcome, they have a better quality of life and it's less expensive to treat them on the ARKids First program," Munsell said.

The state Safety Net Benefit Program, which starts in October, pays for bare-bones insurance coverage for employees of small businesses that do not offer health benefits.

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