Occasionally, an issue comes before Congress that is so clearly aligned with American values that Members across the political spectrum come together to support a solution. Giving uninsured children access to health care is one of those issues. And the strong bipartisan House and Senate votes for the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program were examples of how Congress is trying to cut through politics to improve the lives of American families.
The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP, known in California as Healthy Families) has a history steeped in bipartisanship. A Democratic President and a Republican Congress created the program, which today covers about 6.6 million American children – 800,000 of whom live in California. They are members of families that make no more than 250 percent over the poverty line – too much to participate in Medicaid and too little to afford private insurance. This reauthorization guarantees that all of the kids currently enrolled in SCHIP will continue to receive coverage – and gives states the tools and the resources they need to find and enroll almost four million additional eligible children. California alone has identified 200,000 kids that would be immediately eligible for enrollment, if only it had the adequate resources.
This bill provides those resources. It gives states incentives for ensuring that only the neediest children are enrolled. And it is completely paid for. It has the support of 43 Governors – including our own – in addition to the support of an unusual cadre of bedfellows: private insurance companies, organized labor, the pharmaceutical industry, and hundreds of leading health and children’s advocacy organizations.
Unfortunately, there is one person in Washington who can turn even this issue into a political football. This week, President Bush vetoed Congress’ reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. On the heels of his request for an additional $190 billion for the war in Iraq, he has told Congress to spend no more than $5 billion on children’s health care. If the president gets his way, SCHIP won’t be reauthorized – it will be downsized. This means 20 percent of the children currently enrolled – over 1.4 million kids – will be kicked out of the program.
These are real children who live in our communities. Today, in Yolo County, more than 3,700 kids are enrolled in Healthy Families. They get primary and preventive care – which means that they are less likely to end up in the emergency room. And if they do end up in the ER – they have insurance. Our parents and grandparents used to tell us to be “penny wise rather than a pound foolish.” Investing $35 billion in the SCHIP program today is an infinitely less costly proposition than providing no health care to uninsured children – because, one way or the other, as a nation, we will pay for it later.
Naysayers, with the President as their loudest voice, have concocted a variety of myths about the SCHIP reauthorization. I have long preferred facts to myths, so let me set the record straight: This bill does not increase entitlement spending, because SCHIP is not an entitlement program – it is a capped block grant. This bill doesn’t allow states to cover the children of “rich” parents, nor does it allow them to cover illegal immigrants or parents or childless adults. This bill opens the door to quality health care for 10 million of America’s children. And arguments to the contrary are dead wrong.
The President and his followers can say whatever they like about this reauthorization. But as Republican Senator Charles Grassley, a staunch supporter of this legislation, said on the Senate floor last week, “you can’t call a cow a chicken and have it be true.”
The truth is, the President’s veto of the SCHIP reauthorization is politicking of the worst kind. It directly contradicts the priorities and the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly support Congress’ efforts to extend this program. And it is a shameful move from the President of the richest country in the world – home to more than 9.4 million uninsured children.
In the near future, I will join a majority of my colleagues in casting my vote to override this veto – and we will continue doing so until we prevail. America understands, even if the President doesn’t, that reauthorizing SCHIP in order to expand health care for our children is a fight we cannot afford to lose.
Mike Thompson is a Congressman representing the First Congressional District of California. The Vanguard is proud to announce that he will be writing guest commentary periodically. If you would like to sign up for his email newsletter, you can do so by clicking here.