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Gov. Eric Holcomb led a pandemic-delayed celebration Tuesday as he reenacted signing his name to a new state law aimed at ensuring all Northwest Indiana children with serious medical conditions can continue being treated at Chicago children's hospitals.

The Republican chief executive was surrounded in his Statehouse office by Northwest Indiana children's health advocates, Chicago hospital leaders and Region lawmakers as he ceremonially signed House Enrolled Act 1305.

The new law, which Holcomb officially approved April 26, took effect July 1 after advancing through the Indiana House and Senate without a single Hoosier lawmaker voting no.

It guarantees continued access to Chicago medical care by increasing the rates Indiana Medicaid pays out-of-state children's hospitals for treating Hoosier children to more closely match the significantly higher rates Medicaid pays Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis for the same services.

"It's something we've been working on for seven-and-a-half years," said Donna Criner, executive director Northwest Indiana Cancer Kids Foundation Inc., who joined the governor at the signing ceremony that was delayed a couple of months to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19.

"We finally got something done to make this horrendous, unimaginable journey easier for our families because it's hard enough without having to travel."

Criner explained that absent the new law more Northwest Indiana children served by Medicaid, and their families, were at risk of having their lives regularly disrupted by the need to drive to Indianapolis for ongoing medical care, instead of being able to get treatment at a nearby Chicago hospital.

"Our East Chicago and our Hammond people are 14 miles from Comer (Children's Hospital). It's 175 miles to Indy," Criner said. "And it's a kid. You're not dropping off someone off for a nine-hour infusion and saying, 'I'll pick you up when you're done.' It doesn't work that way."

"It means so much to these families to not have to travel, and I will hopefully stop getting phone calls from Interstate 65 in the middle of the winter from a crying mother with a throwing-up kid in the backseat begging me to get her into a Chicago hospital."

Criner said the law also will enable Northwest Indiana children undergoing treatment in Chicago for cancer, sickle cell disease, premature birth maladies, and similar serious health conditions to remain with their current teams of medical personnel.

"We have world class care right here in Chicago. It's very difficult for these parents to juggle Indianapolis," she said.

State Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, was primary sponsor of the new law. He identified the policy change as a key goal during his 2020 campaign to win back the Indiana House seat he held from 2012 until narrowly losing it in the 2018 general election.

"Getting this legislation across the finish line was a top priority this session, especially for the families in Northwest Indiana whose children were not able to receive critical medical care close to home," Slager said.

"The added stress and cost of traveling to Indianapolis for treatment they could have received just 10 miles away created unnecessary hardships, and it was clear the process needed to be fixed."

It doesn't apply solely to Chicago children's hospitals. Prior to enactment of the new law, children's hospitals in Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, were similarly reluctant to treat Indiana kids covered by Medicaid, even though they are the closest hospitals to large swaths of Hoosiers.

The statute does not affect hospital availability for Hoosiers covered by private or employer health insurance, or those who pay cash for medical services.

"We've removed a significant stressor for local families dealing with a sick child. Now, we hope more Northwest Indiana children can get the care they need closer to home," said state Rep. Julie Olthoff, R-Crown Point.

"This legislation was many years in the making, and this session it passed unanimously. Rep. Slager worked tirelessly to get this law enacted, and as the co-author, I know it will benefit many Hoosier families."

The new law also was co-sponsored by Region state Reps. Carolyn Jackson, D-Hammond; Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago; and Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso; and state Sens. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores; Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso; Eddie Melton, D-Gary; Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell; Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago; and Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes.

In addition, former state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, championed the proposal in prior legislative sessions when the House and Senate were unable to agree on how best to increase Indiana Medicaid payments to out-of-state children's hospitals.

The nonpartisan Legislative Service Agency estimates the bulk of the additional money going to out-of-state children's hospitals will be paid by the federal government, leaving approximately $630,000 to $830,000 a year for Indiana to pay.

However, to ensure the program does not become a burden on Hoosier taxpayers, the law directs the State Budget Committee to review the costs after one year, and requires a future General Assembly to renew the program if it is to continue beyond June 30, 2023.

This article originally ran on nwitimes.com.

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