Colorado Senators Divided on SCHIP Funding

Colorado Sens. Ken Salazar (D) and Wayne Allard (R) are on opposite sides of a showdown in Washington over federal funding for a key children’s health care program. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is set to expire Sept. 30, but a proposal to extend it by a bipartisan group of members of the Senate Finance Committee faces a veto threat from Bush. The President wants to reauthorize the program, but with much less funding than the Senate proposal includes.

SCHIP covers children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford private insurance. Currently, nearly 50,000 children in Colorado are covered by SCHIP, but more than 167,000 Colorado children still have no health insurance, and nine million children are uninsured nationwide.

SCHIP is currently funded by both state and federal money, the latter of which amounts to about $5 billion a year.

The Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured estimates an additional $13 billion to $15 billion is needed just to maintain current enrollment levels.  The Senate Finance Committee proposal would add $35 billion to SCHIP over five years, which would maintain the current number of children covered and add 3.3 million more. The money would come from a 61-cent increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes.

continued…Bush wants to expand funding by only $5 billion over five years, a move that would result in some children getting kicked off the program. Bush opposes more funding because he wants to focus the discussion about affordable health care on tax cuts, and he opposes increasing the tax on cigarettes. The President also objects to some states allowing low-income adults coverage under SCHIP. Colorado, for instance, allows pregnant women to enroll.

Allard supports Bush’s plan, his spokesman Steve Wymer said.

“Senator Allard strongly supports the reauthorization of the SCHIP program, but is concerned that the program could be hijacked by some in Congress who want to direct funding away from the children the program was intended to help,” he said.

But Bush is clashing with other Republican lawmakers over the issue. GOP Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah were instrumental in crafting the proposal in the Senate Finance Committee. They issued a joint statement last week reading in part:

“It’s disappointing, even a little unbelievable, to hear talk about Administration officials wanting a veto of a legislative proposal they haven’t even seen yet – because it isn’t even finalized yet. The President ought to give Congress a chance to offer a proposal first. As Republican leaders on the committee of jurisdiction, we’ve been working day and night to reach an agreement on children’s health insurance legislation because it is imperative that this important program, which has helped so many children, be continued.

The GOP legislators view their proposal as a compromise since a Democratic plan in the House calls for $50 billion in increased funding over the next five years.

Salazar, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, issued a statement Tuesday criticizing Bush’s veto threat:

“It is unconscionable that the President would announce a veto threat before we have even begun to mark up the SCHIP bill in Committee. Reauthorizing SCHIP is a no-brainer. It has become a critical resource that provides much needed coverage to children who would otherwise go uninsured. It is our moral and economic obligation in Washington to invest in our children’s healthcare, as our investment today, will pay off tomorrow. We are making positive headway in Congress to responsibly improve and expand the program, and it is very discouraging that the President has made this threat before we even have a final bill.”

SCHIP was created a decade ago as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Many people on both sides of the aisle are supportive of the program and consider it successful in keeping low-income children healthy.

Uninsured children often don’t receive medical care, and their medical problems can escalate into adulthood if not addressed, thus creating additional costs later on.  Nearly 28 percent of uninsured children in Colorado received no medical care whatsoever in 2003, compared to only 12 percent of insured children, according to a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.