Lawmakers Staging SCHIP Showdown

Legislators in the U.S. House are squaring off over a Democratic proposal that would increase funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and make several changes to Medicare. SCHIP provides health coverage for children whose families cannot afford insurance but don’t qualify for Medicaid. The program is set to expire Sept. 30, and lawmakers are battling over the terms of its reauthorization.

Democrats introduced their bill, called the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection Act of 2007 (CHAMP Act), late Tuesday. They’re aiming to reauthorize the program before the August recess, which gives them two weeks to get the bill through both chambers and a conference committee, since the Senate is considering its own bill.

House Republicans are accusing Democrats of trying to rush the 465-page bill through the chamber without allowing enough time for discussion. The House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill late Thursday by a vote of 24 to 17. The Energy and Commerce Committee considered the bill into the evening Thursday and will continue discussion today. A Republican motion to delay debate was defeated.

continued…Oregon Republican Greg Walden said he needed more time “to find out what’s in this bill that is so big it’s literally becoming unglued as I look through it.”

Democrats objected, citing the looming expiration deadline for SCHIP and arguing that while subcommittee hearings hadn’t been held for this particular bill, many recent hearings have been held about SCHIP.

Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, who is Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, urged other members to support the proposal.

“It would be a shame if we here in Congress, starting with this esteemed committee, let partisan bickering prevent us from reauthorizing the SCHIP program,” DeGette said.

The CHAMP Act would expand federal funding for SCHIP by $50 billion over five years, which supporters say would provide coverage to 11 million children. SCHIP is currently funded at $5 billion a year and covers 6 million children.

House Republicans strongly oppose the plan and introduced their own SCHIP reauthorization bill Wednesday that would add $5 billion to $10 billion to the program over five years. But Democrats say that level of funding would result in thousands of children losing coverage. The non-partisan Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured estimates an additional $13 billion to $15 billion is needed to maintain current enrollment levels.

A third proposal in the Senate would add $35 billion to the program and cover 9.9 million children. The funding would come from a 61-cent increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes, which tobacco companies and some lawmakers from tobacco states oppose.

President Bush has threatened to veto the Senate proposal and is calling for $5 billion in increased SCHIP funding.

The House Democrats’ plan is more ambitious than the Senate plan and is also likely to face a veto threat from Bush, especially considering its price tag — an estimated $86.8 billion over five years and possibly $160 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But Democrats say it would be money well spent.

“To those who oppose this bill due to cost, I ask them to consider the cost of 12 million children growing up without health care,” Congresswoman DeGette said. “There is no question that this investment will save our government untold millions, perhaps billions, in th future.”

While Senators are touting their more modest bill as bipartisan, it is unlikely that a compromise plan will be as easily reached in the House.

“We’re ready to work with them when they’re ready to work with us,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) told the Associated Press.

House Republicans are also objecting to the CHAMP Act’s source of funding and to its Medicare provisions.

The bill calls for a 45-cent increase in cigarette taxes. The remainder of the money would come from a reduction in payments to privately managed plans under the Medicare Advantage program. Medicare Advantage plans receive an estimated 12 percent higher payments from the government than traditional Medicare plans, according to a report by the federal, independent Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC).

MedPAC has recommended payments for Medicare Advantage plans be equalized with payments for traditional Medicare, but many Republicans oppose the move. They argue that many seniors choose the private plans because they often offer more benefits with lower premiums than Medicare, since Medicare Advantage plans are required to pass their savings from the extra payments onto beneficiaries.

About 163,000 Coloradans, or 32 percent of everyone eligible for Medicare in the state, are enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans.

Republicans say lower payments could result in Medicare Advantage enrollees losing their extra benefits.

While GOP lawmakers support the reauthorization of SCHIP, they say they object to expanding eligibility to young adults, pregnant women and children from higher income families, which the CHAMP Act would allow states to do via waivers from the federal government.

“I support reauthorizing SCHIP to help children in low-income families but I do not support House Democrats’ plans to cut popular Medicare programs and increase taxes on working families to push through a program that is a first step toward socialized, government-run health care,” House Minority Leader John Boehner said in a statement.

The Committee on Energy and Commerce is expected to vote on the bill later today.

The CHAMP Act would make several other changes to Medicare. It would:

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