Virginia's Legislature has passed a law allowing residents to donate their state income tax refunds to help fund medical care for the uninsured.
Commonly called a "checkoff program," Virginia's may be only the second one of its kind in the country, according to a recent survey.
Oklahoma has a similar checkoff program that allows residents to donate to the Indigent Health Care Fund. Donations help provide medical and dental care to Oklahoma's needy children and families.
Since 1987, Oklahoma's fund has collected about $685,000, said Paula Ross, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
Around the country, there are at least 177 income tax checkoff programs in 41 states and the District of Columbia, according to a survey by the Federation of Tax Administrators, a Washington-based trade association of state tax administrators.
Under the checkoff programs, citizens can donate money to a variety of causes, including political campaigns, wildlife preservation and medical research.
Last year, Virginia had a dozen checkoff programs that collected $556,148, said a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Taxation.
The idea for Virginia's new program came from two citizens, who suggested it to Frank Ruff, a Republican delegate to the Virginia General Assembly from Mecklenburg County.
The new program's intent is to use the donated money to pay the medical expenses of the uninsured, typically the working poor, who can't afford to buy private health insurance but aren't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.
The Virginia Department of Medical Assistance, which administers the state's Medicaid program, will write the regulations for the new law, Ruff said. The law is effective in July.
But many key details of the law, such as who will qualify for the money, still need to be determined.
Katharine Webb, senior vice president at the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, said the new law passed unnoticed by many people who track health policy in the state.
According to a published report, an existing bill was amended to establish the new fund for the uninsured.
Webb said Virginia, which already has other programs targeted to pay the medical bills of the uninsured, still hasn't tackled the larger issue of extending coverage to the state's 880,000 uninsured residents.
"It seems to me what's really important and what we keep failing to do in terms of health policy is to figure out how to get coverage for these folks," Webb said.