Gregoire may sue over veto

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday she’s prepared to sue the federal government if the Bush administration doesn’t back away from restrictions on children’s health care.

More than 8,000 Washington children could be affected by the outcome, the governor said. The state is officially on record as pledging to help cover all children by 2010, and that can’t happen without federal financial help and maximum flexibility for the states, she said.

Congress and the White House are negotiating terms for reauthorizing the State Children’s Health Program this week. The states and the federal government share the cost of covering many children, but the program expires this week unless Congress and the president agree on new legislation.

Gregoire said she’s baffled by the president’s refusal to expand the program, and upset at the administration’s new restrictions on the states. She said she’s asked the state attorney general to prepare a possible lawsuit.

Gregoire told reporters Monday that none of Washington’s children risk getting kicked off, but that the state won’t be allowed to enroll about 8,100 additional children unless it prevails.

The new two-year state budget has money for about 38,000 new enrollees. Coverage is free for the very poor and will be available, starting in 2009, on a sliding scale to families who earn up to 300 percent of the poverty level, about $62,000 a year for a family of four.

The state covers about 1.3 million people, including public employees, the working poor and people who qualify for Medicaid. The state covers 544,000 children and youth. An estimated 73,000 children still have no coverage.

The Bush administration has ­resisted the states’ efforts to expand coverage beyond 250 percent of poverty, seeing it as a back-door way to move to government-run universal health care.

The governor released a letter she sent to Mike Leavitt, federal secretary of Health and Human Services, complaining about the agency’s unilateral decision to add new restrictions. Examples: Children could be covered only if they’ve been without health care for one year, and states would have to cover 95 percent of its poorest children before expanding into families with more income.

“We hope that the federal government continues to be a partner, rather than a roadblock, to our children’s health,” Gregoire wrote.

Sixteen states, including Washington, may have to cut back their children’s health programs, and some, not including Washington, will actually have to drop some children who are currently enrolled, she told reporters.

She said the lawsuit is “not my choice, not my preference,” but may be the only answer. Other states may collaborate, she said.

Gregoire said she’s pushing hard for approval of the Senate’s version of the reauthorization legislation. She said she’s told the home state delegation, “Draw a line in the sand on this one.”

On other topics, the governor:

Repeatedly refused to directly answer whether she sacked her chief of staff, Tom Fitzsimmons, as insiders suggest. His departure, along with that of communications director Holly Armstrong, is about their desire for a break from the extremely heavy workload, she said.

Said she believes Republican Dino Rossi is running for governor, but repeatedly declined to acknowledge her own candidacy. She has raised nearly $3 million, but told reporters she won’t officially announce her plans until after the legislative session this winter.

Gregoire said she wants to work with lawmakers from both parties and hopes Olympia won’t get overly political until the campaigns kick off next year.

“I’m sure not going to feed it,” she said.

She has gone on inactive status with her bar association card because she can’t spare the time for continuing legal education, her heavy involvement with lawmaking notwithstanding. Attorneys in the Legislature are exempted from those requirements.

Said she’s promoting a constitutional amendment to create a “rainy day” reserve fund for state government, believing the Legislature hasn’t figured out a way to build up adequate reserves on its own.

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