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A "rebate/grant" fund may allow Utah to continue operating a program that helps pregnant women, infants and children who are at nutritional risk without asking state lawmakers for supplementary money.

Health Department officials had to tighten eligibility for the federally funded Women, Infants and Children nutrition program in January. The program faced funding shortfalls because the state's allocation was not enough to cover an increased caseload or a substantial increase in the cost of dairy products and formula.More strenuous cuts were made in June. By September, an estimated 20,000 children will be eliminated from the program, which has been assisting about 46,000 Utahns.

The fund, $800,000 provided by baby formula manufacturers in the form of a grant or a rebate on formula sales, is designated first to assist the WIC program, said Dr. Peter Van Dyck, director of the Division of Family Health Services. The state has had the fund for a couple of years, he said.

"It comes in and we watch and if there's trouble with WIC - if we get overextended - it acts as a buffer. We plan on using that this year. Even then, we may not have enough money," Van Dyck said.

Rumors circulated Tuesday that some legislators were unhappy about a request for state money for WIC, since they weren't told about the rebate/grant.

Van Dyck said he was puzzled by the rumor. "The Health Department has not asked the Legislature for additional money. Yet. And the fund's no secret."

The governor did receive the request, but it came from the Human Services Coalition. The coalition, comprised of advocacy groups for the disabled, poor and elderly, included the WIC request in a list of can't-wait needs in health and social-service programs.

"We asked for $8.2 million in ongoing funds for other programs and $1 million in one-time money for WIC," said Bill Walsh, director of Utah Issues and a coalition member.

"It's crucial to maintain funding. Besides the obvious need to care for people who need nutritional help, federal funding for the program is based on caseload and if people are dropped from the program, it will affect funding for two years," Walsh said.

"WIC funding is pretty much in the air right now," said Ross Martin, Health Department public information officer. June caseload figures, due July 20, will be used to decide if the program has enough money. If not, it might be temporarily discontinued in September until the new funding year begins Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering emergency action to make up the shortfall.