House, Senate pass bill to aid uninsured

The Associated Press

SANTA FE — The state Human Services Department would set up a program to help buy health insurance for children of the working poor under legislation endorsed by both the House and the Senate on Tuesday.

The bills are backed by the Richardson administration as one way to tackle the problem of an estimated 400,000 uninsured New Mexicans.

The House-passed measure goes to the Senate and the Senate-passed bill heads to the House. Both houses must pass the same bill before it would reach the governor’s desk.

The bills authorize the Human Services Department to develop rules for a program to help pay private health insurance premiums for New Mexicans who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.

Often, those families can’t afford private insurance or not all family members are covered by insurance that workers in the family may have, according to the bills’ supporters.

The bills specify that the programs be for pregnant women, children under 12 and the older siblings — up to 18 — of children under 12.

But the department plans to focus first on the estimated 5,000 uninsured children who are 5 years old or under and don’t qualify for Medicaid.

The department envisions paying a portion of their premiums — perhaps $100 a month — once the program gets under way.

“This bill is not the only answer. It is one piece of the puzzle that we are trying to address, which is people above that Medicaid level,” said Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Albuquerque, who voted for it.

Currently, children qualify for Medicaid if their parents earn up to 235 percent of the federal poverty level.

The bills don’t contain any funding for the program. Gov. Bill Richardson has asked lawmakers to set aside $5.6 million for it — enough to cover the 5,000 youngest children, according to the administration — although no appropriation for the program has been included in the proposed state budget for next year approved by the House.

House approves increased penalties for sex crimes
SANTA FE — A proposal to toughen penalties for certain sex offenders was approved unanimously by the House on Tuesday.

The measure would create a new crime of “aggravated criminal sexual penetration” for the most heinous sex offenses — raping a child under 9 years of age or when rape is committed with an “intent to kill or with a depraved mind regardless of human life.”

Convictions would carry a sentence of life in prison.

Life imprisonment in New Mexico requires the offender to serve at least 30 years before becoming eligible for parole.
Under current law, convictions of rape or criminal sexual penetration on a child under 13 is a felony punishable by 18 years in prison.

The legislation also would allow for tougher parole requirements, potentially requiring some sex offenders to be subject to supervised parole for the remainder of their lives. However, the bill also would establish a higher legal standard for the state to prove that a sex offender should remain on parole after an initial five years of parole.

Rep. Hector Balderas, D-Wagon Mound, said the tougher penalties will help protect children and “the most vulnerable in New Mexico” against sexual predators.

The bill goes to the Senate for consideration.

Gov. Bill Richardson has advocated tougher penalties for sex offenders and last year called for a penalty of life in prison without chance of parole for the worst sex crimes against children.