Thursday, August 2, 2007

The House yesterday tripled to $75 billion funding for a popular health insurance program for low-income children, surviving Republican efforts to rein in what they call a push to socialized care.

Republicans, who support the program but oppose expanding it to middle-class families, failed in several attempts to limit eligibility requirements and keep spending around President Bush’s requested $5 billion expansion of the program.

The House bill to extend the 10-year-old State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) passed by a vote of 225-204. Only five Republicans voted for the bill, with 10 Democrats voting against it.

“With this [legislation], we are not going to fail America’s children — we are championing them,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “This legislation has fiscal soundness, it has a values base, and it should have the support of everyone.”

The Democrats’ bill proposes a $50 billion spending increase for the program over five years, for a total of about $75 billion. The plan would add an estimated 5 million children to the 6 million already enrolled in the program, which expires Sept. 30.

“For this Congress, this [bill] is perhaps the greatest opportunity we will have,” said Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat. “It’s not only a humanitarian and a compassionate concern of this nation, but rather it’s the future of this country.”

A Senate version of the bill, which is expected to be voted on today, would spend an additional $35 billion over five years and would cover 3 million children not currently enrolled.

The White House says it will veto the legislation if it exceeds $30 billion.

Republicans say the legislation would undermine the marketplace by offering coverage to children already insured privately and try to do so by cutting Medicare benefits to the elderly.

They add the measure would extend coverage to families with incomes as high as 400 percent above of the federal poverty level — even if the majority of children in those families already have private coverage.

“Many say this SCHIP bill is a back-door tactic to get socialized medicine in America. That’s not true,” said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “This is a front-door tactic to get socialized medicine in America.”

Republicans also say the Democrats’ bill is too costly and would severely strain congressional budgets.

“This is about allotting a new permanent entitlement program — no matter what the majority will say,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican.

But Democrats said expanding the program is necessary for the world’s wealthiest nation to ensure no American child goes without medical care.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said Republicans have “needlessly politicized” debate over the SCHIP reauthorization in an effort to prevent Democrats from claiming a legislative victory before the August congressional recess.

“They are afraid that Democrats are getting too much done for the American people, and will do anything to prevent passage of legislation that provides health insurance to 11 million children,” Mr. Hoyer said.

SCHIP, which is a joint federal-state partnership, subsidizes the cost of insuring children living in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance. The federal government pays for about 70 percent of the program, and the states pay the rest.

States are allowed to set eligibility guidelines, with some opting to expand coverage to as much as four times above the poverty level, or about $70,000 for a family of four. Some states also have extended coverage to some adults.

To pay for the plans, House Democrats proposed a 45-cent per-pack cigarette-tax increase and cuts to the Medicare Advantage program for seniors.

The Senate version calls for a 61-cent per-pack cigarette-tax increase but no cuts to Medicare Advantage.

Republicans say the House Democrats’ plan unnecessarily pits children against seniors. Democrats deny the Medicare cuts will hurt any needy seniors.

The cigarette-tax increase is strongly opposed by many Republican lawmakers, particularly those from tobacco-producing states.

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