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Medicare Bill Would Bolster Funding for Variety of Education Programs

In a rare showing of bipartisanship, the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed with overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle a Medicare bill that would also boost funding for rural school districts and for a home-visiting program.

The U.S. Senate plans to take up the measure after Congress returns from its two-week recess the week of April 13, and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he expects it to pass in a similar bipartisan fashion.

The underlying bill, which overhauls a formula that provides payments to doctors seeing Medicare patients, also includes two important education provisions.

As my colleague Christina Samuels reported earlier this week over at the Early Years, the bill would provide an additional $800 million for the Maternal, Infant, and Early-Childhood Home Visiting Program, known as MIECHV. The program gives federal dollars to states, which use that money along with state funds to pay for nurses and trained workers to make home visits to families who face economic and social struggles.

The bill would also extend the Secure Rural Schools Act for two years, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars to rural counties to provide consistent support for more than 4,400 schools located near national forest areas.

Funding for the law, which was established in 2000 and expired in 2006, has received multiple extensions, typically to unrelated bills. During the last temporary extension in October of 2013, for example, the funding was attached to the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, which primarily aimed to address a helium shortage.

Last year (fiscal 2014), states received about $329 million in funding. But because the law was not reauthorized last year, funding for the program has now reverted to a formula created in 1908, which stipulates that states will receive 25 percent of timber sales revenues from their national forest land. And under that formula, 41 states would receive a cut of just $50 million this year.

A coalition of rural school organizations, led by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, wrote to members of Congress this week urging them to include the funding in the Medicare "doc fix" bill, as the legislation is called.

"For many rural counties once dependent on timber revenue, SRS [Secure Rural Schools] payments are the lifeblood of local schools and communities, helping them avoid school closures, teacher and public employee layoffs, library closures, and reduced mental health services," wrote AASA's associate executive director of policy and advocacy, Noelle Ellerson, in a March 25 letter to House members.

In the letter, Ellerson also noted that the funding has allowed rural county road departments to address their severe maintenance backlog in addition to funding schools.

And finally, the Medicare bill would also extend for two years the Children's Health Insurance Plan, or CHIP. When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, it extended money for CHIP only through Sept. 30, 2015.

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