President Bush challenged Democrats on Thursday to renew a popular children's health insurance program and accused them of "putting poor children at risk so they can score political points in Washington."
The State Children's Health Insurance Program is set to expire Sept. 30. Democrats are pushing for a $35 billion spending increase for SCHIP, and Bush has threatened to veto it. He has proposed a $5 billion increase.
The president urged lawmakers to send him a simple, temporaryH- extension of the program if both sides cannot agree on the terms of a new measure.
"If they fail to do so, more than a million children could lose health coverage," Bush said at a press conference. "Health coverage for these children should not be held hostage while political ads are being made and new polls are being taken."
Federalized health care?
SCHIP is a state-federal partnership designed to provide health coverage to families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private coverage. More than 6 million people, primarily children, participate.
The Democratic lawmakers' proposal would bring total spending to about $60 billion over the next five years, or twice the level sought by the Bush administration.
Bush said he opposed the Democrats' proposal because it would encourage states to extend health coverage to middle-income families now using private insurance.
"I believe this is a step toward federalization of health care," Bush said.
Democratic lawmakers said their proposal does not call for a government takeover of health care.
"The president hides behind the word 'federalization' because his political base opposes doing what is decent and humane," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "The Senate and the House both approved legislation that would extend health care coverage for poor kids, not cut it back."
Return to original focus
States have flexibility to set eligibility criteria for participants. New York, for example, recently applied to expand coverage to families whose incomes are up to four times the federal poverty level - $68,680 for a family of three. However, the administration rejected New York's proposal.
"Instead of expanding SCHIP beyond its original purpose, we should return it to its original focus, and that is helping poor children, those who are most in need," Bush said. "And instead of encouraging people to drop private coverage in favor of government plans, we should work to make basic private health insurance affordable and accessible for all Americans."
The House previously had called for a $50 billion expansion of SCHIP that would have been funded by an increase in tobacco taxes and lowering subsidies to private insurers offering Medicare health benefits. But the provision to lower the subsidies was opposed by some key Senate Republicans as well as by nearly 20 Democrats in the House, making it more difficult to overcome a veto.
The $35 billion increase is a compromise with Democratic lawmakers in the House. Most, or all, would be funded by the tobacco tax.
Earlier this week, Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was said by an aide to be focusing on renewing the program rather than just passing a temporary extension.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said most states would have enough money to continue their programs even if SCHIP expires. However, he said about 12 states may not have enough money to keep going for a sustained period. He did not provide a list of the states.