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Senate Debates Child Health Legislation

Senate Debates Child Health Legislation

Kevin Freking / AP

January 29, 2009

WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers inched closer Thursday to giving President Barack Obama an early health care victory as they considered extending government-sponsored health insurance coverage to about 4 million uninsured children.

The Senate was expected to pass the legislation late Thursday after Democrats spent much of the day fending off Republican amendments. The House plans to take up the same measure next week.

The bill calls for an additional $32 billion over the next 4 1/2 years for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Even with the added spending, an estimated 5 million children still will be without health insurance. During his election campaign, Obama called for requiring all children to have health coverage.

The bill pays for expanding SCHIP by increasing the federal excise tax on cigarettes from 39 cents to $1 a pack. Opponents argued that the tax would hit the poor the hardest.

Republicans opposed letting states use federal dollars to cover children of newly arrived legal immigrants, saying that the immigrants’ sponsors had pledged that those coming to the United States would not be dependent on government assistance. Republican opponents also sought stricter income limits for participating families so that some states would focus more on covering children of the working poor.

Current law requires a five-year waiting period before legal immigrants become eligible for coverage under Medicaid and SCHIP. Democrats said that removing the ban would help children before small health problems became big ones.

“It is likely many of these children are already U.S. citizens and many will become U.S citizens, and their being unhealthy doesn’t make sense for that family, and it certainly does not make sense for our nation.” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

Support for expanding SCHIP has had strong, bipartisan support. In 2007, former President George W. Bush twice vetoed bills to expand the program. The Senate voted to override Bush, but the House fell about 15 votes short of an override.

Scores of interest groups have lined up in support of more money for SCHIP, including trade groups representing insurers, hospitals, doctors, unions and the pharmaceutical industry.

Some Republican senators complained that Democrats had worked closely with many of them on SCHIP in the past but had ignored them this year when crafting the bill.

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