Democratic Congress Passes Expansion of Children's Health Insurance


8-03-07, 9:49 am

Both Democratic-led Houses of Congress this week easily passed separate bills that would reauthorize the State Children Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) and provide new funding to cover at least an additional 3 million uninsured children under the popular 10-year old program.

The US Census Bureau estimates that despite the success of the program, about 9 million children went without insurance in 2006.

The program provides low-cost insurance for mainly working families who cannot afford sky-rocketing insurance for their children. The program helps working families pay for childhood medical needs for regular check-ups and infections to expensive chronic illness treatments such as for asthma and allergy, to injuries, long-term life-threatening illnesses, and the like.

New funding would be paid for through an increase of the federal tax on cigarettes.

A recent Georgetown University poll found that nearly 9 in 10 Americans support the reauthorization bill.

Congressional Debate

Republican opponents of reauthorizing S-CHIP argued for limiting funding the children's insurance program in order to reduce the number children on the program.

Republican members of the House raised specters of 'socialized medicine,' the attack on private insurance, and driving up the cost of private insurance in their statements on the bill. Some even incorrectly claimed the bill aimed to give benefits to undocumented immigrants.

Republican Sen. Trent Lott (MS) opposed passage of reauthorization of S-CHIP because it allows more families to gain access to affordable coverage for their children under its provisions. Working families should be forced to buy high-cost private insurance, he appeared to argue.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) objected to the proposed cigarette tax increase, claiming, correctly, that it is unfairly regressive. But Dole has other motives than a concern for low-income smokers. She has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Big Tobacco over the years, and staunchly supported huge tax cuts for the rich and giveaways and subsidies to powerful corporations.

Republican Sen. Wayne Allard (CO), couldn't make up his mind as to whether the federal government should control the income eligibility requirements or if states could better run the program.

Allard even accused states like New York and New Jersey with high costs of living that offer higher income eligibility levels to cover more children of failing 'to play by the rules.'

New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez fired back that Allard's comment was 'a direct attack on children in New Jersey.' He said, 'I didn't think I would have come to the Senate and see such a refined focus on the children of anyone's state.'

'I thought this was one country,' Menendez fumed.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) pointed out that states with higher costs of living should have flexibility to set higher income eligibility limits. 'Health care, like everything else,' she stated, 'costs differently depending upon where you are in the country.'

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) dismissed alternative plans to offer tax credits for health care costs as falling far short of what working families need to afford coverage. These are 'policies that will expand the number of the uninsured,' she noted.

Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) accused opponents of the S-CHIP bill of misleading the public about its goals. This bill 'lowers the rates of uninsured children in America just like the original children's health insurance bill did. It strengthens the program by targeting funding for our children. And it also gives states the tools they need to do the outreach that is required to get our children enrolled.'

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) opined that opponents of the bill seemed to prefer giving huge tax breaks to millionaires and massive subsidies to wealthy oil companies over providing insurance for the children of working families.

Similarly, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) clarified the choice: 'Do you favor big tobacco or children?'

Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama said the time for out-of-touch ideological debate, which is often filled 'with half-truths and scare-tactics,' is over, and that Senators have a responsibility to get the job done.

'As long as there are 9 million children in the United States of America with no health insurance,' Obama said, 'it is a betrayal of our ideals as Americans. It is not who we are.'

'So let's get serious and solve this problem. Let's reauthorize S-CHIP,' he added.

Obama then saw the successes of S-CHIP and the passage of this bill as an opportunity to take another step toward providing universal health care coverage. So far, Obama stated, the market place hasn't been as successful in providing coverage for these children. If it had there would be no uninsured children.

'We also know that the question of children's health care is tied to the larger question of universal care in this country, because we know that when we cover parents, we also cover children,' Obama stated.

'If we're serious about covering every child, at some point we're going to have to cover every parent as well,' he added.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) agreed. 'I hope that we can build on [SCHIP], cover more uninsured children, move to the day that every single American, regardless of their income, has basic health insurance coverage, so that every American has peace of mind when it comes to their health and the health of their family,' he commented.

Sen. Obama also called on the Senate to be prepared to override a threatened presidential veto. 'I urge my colleagues to stand and fight that veto every which way we can,' he said.

The Senate vote was 68-31 and appears to have enough votes to override. A final bill will have to be negotiated with the House next month.

President Bush Threatens to Veto Health Care for Children

President Bush opposes the reauthorization of S-CHIP. He says that the successful low-cost insurance program will entice people away from expensive private insurance.

Bush also insists that the lack of insurance for children isn't as bad a problem as most people say, erroneously claiming that only 1 million children lack insurance coverage.

Bush has also implied that working families who can't afford insurance don't need anything more than emergency room care. 'I mean, people have access to health care in America,' Bush said earlier this month. 'After all, you just go to an emergency room.'

For these reasons, Bush threatened to veto the S-CHIP reauthorization even before he had read it. (Senate Democrats hadn't yet sent him a copy when he made his threat.)

President Bush so far has used his veto power only twice: to block bills on stem cell research and on bringing the troops home from Iraq. He is now threatening to veto this children's health care bill.

It is clear that the Republicans' ideological driven compulsion to put the free market and profit above all else, no matter how badly it fails to get the job done (e.g. Katrina, health care generally, environmental policy, etc.), has been fully discredited.

We need a new direction in Washington and the defeat of Republicans in the 2006 elections was the first step. Weakening them further in 2008 with a stronger progressive majority in Congress and friendly faces in the White House is the next step toward better health care for all.

--Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs. Reach him at

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