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State hiking child-care program costs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Crystal Habjan is among the West Virginia parents bracing for high child care costs, as copayments increase starting Wednesday for a state program that helps low-income families afford care outside the home.

The full-time dental assistant from Fayetteville now pays $2.25 a day so her 3-year-old daughter can stay at a care center while Habjan works her 10-hour shift. That daily copay will increase to $8.75 and Habjan, a single mother, doesn't yet know if she can afford that.

"Mine's tripled. I'm still not sure what this is going to do,'' Habjan said Tuesday. "Having this full-time job and getting that benefit, help with child care, keeps me off of every other benefit the state provides.''

Habjan qualifies for the program because she earns below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $27,991 a year for a family of two. The program is hiking copays after exhausting surplus federal funds that had allowed it to supplement the program, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Around 800 West Virginia families receive subsidies from this program, which covered 24,000 children during the past budget year at a cost of $54 million, DHHR officials said. It aims to help secure quality child care while parents work, look for jobs or go to school.

"[The program] has definitely made it to where I could work and still keep my head above water,'' said Habjan, 27, who began her current job in March after working part-time.

Parents now pay between nothing and 5 percent of child care costs. All parents will begin paying 12 percent of costs under the increase. The hikes will hit parents the next time the program calculates their income eligibility, which occurs every six months, DHHR spokeswoman Marsha Dadisman said Tuesday.

Program officials note that West Virginia's copayment has been below that of most other states. It ranked 42nd both for the average monthly payment and its share of household income, according to a 2011 report on child care by the National Women's Law Center.

The report looked at costs for a family of three at 150 percent of the poverty line. It estimated West Virginia's monthly copay at $54. Among the state's five neighbors, Kentucky had the next lowest at $173, while Maryland had the highest at $313. The copayments for Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia each exceeded $200.

But Melissa Colagrosso, who operates a Fayette County day care center, said she fears the copay hikes will force parents to quit their jobs or leave their children with "the teenager down the road'' or an unlicensed, uncertified provider.

"I definitely think we're going to lose some families,'' Colagrosso said Tuesday. She added, "[The program] encourages quality child care centers, it encourages centers to step up and meet standards that are considered to be good for children.''

West Virginia had also planned to freeze program enrollment as of Wednesday, but Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced last week that it would remain open. He also said he's seeking alternatives to restricting eligibility to the program as of Jan. 1 to families below 150 percent of the poverty line, or $22,695 for a family of two.

Habjan was one of those parents who received notices warning that they would be cut off if the state tightens the income threshold.

"It was my birthday and I cried all day long,'' Habjan said. "I was stressing about what I was going to do to take care of my child. Sitting at home and getting food stamps and all that is just not an option for me.''


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