Senate Passes SCHIP Expansion; First Step Toward National Health Care, Republicans Say

January 30, 2009 - 6:53 AM
Nine Republicans joined 57 Democrats in voting for the bill that will make more Americans dependent on the government for their health care.
(Update: On Friday, President Barack Obama said the SCHIP expansion amounts to "a down payment on my commitment to ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care.")

Washington (AP) – The Democrat-controlled Senate on Thursday voted 66-32 to pass a bill expanding government-sponsored health insurance for children.
 
Nine Republicans joined 57 Democrats in voting for the bill. No Democrat voted against it.
 
(The nine Republicans voting for the SCHIP expansion were Sens. Alexander and Corker of Tennessee, Collins and Snowe of Maine, Hutchison of Texas, Lugar of Indiana, Martinez of Florida, Murkowski of Alaska, and Specter of Pennsylvania.)
 
The bill, which currently covers about 7 million children at a cost of $25 billion, would authorize an additional $32.8 billion over the next 4-and-a-half years to enroll another 4 million people in the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
 
SCHIP was created ten years ago to provide health insurance to low-income children whose parents make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but too little to pay for private health insurance.  
 
While Democrats called Senate passage of the SCHIP expansion a victory for kids, Republicans called it a victory for national health care.
 
“This debate had nothing to do with children,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “It had everything to do with making more Americans dependent on the government for their health care.”
 
The SCHIP expansion will be funded by increasing the federal excise tax on cigarettes to $1 a pack from 39 cents.

That was a sticking point for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“I cannot agree with the notion that we have to pay for our children’s health care coverage by taxing and banking on the continual existence of the use of harmful tobacco products,” McCain said. “We ought to be continuing our efforts to get people to stop smoking, not hoping that tobacco usage continues at its current level so that we can generate additional tax revenues for CHIP.” 
 
McCain, who supported the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program ten years ago, described the Democrats’ bill as a “very partisan attempt to take a good program [and] expand it far beyond the original scope of the CHIP.”
 
McCain pointed to a Congressional Budget Office study, which said the bill will move millions of people away from private insurance coverage. “I must ask, is the intent of this legislation to provide coverage for low-income children or is it the first step in driving private health insurance to its knees?”
 
McCain also said the Senate bill will “drastically expand coverage beyond low-income children” to children in families making up to $88,000 a year.
 
The inclusion of higher-income families also bothered Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell:  “I don’t know anyone in Kentucky who would characterize $88,000 as ‘low-income,’ McConnell said in a message on his Web site.
 
McConnell also noted that some states have used SCHIP to cover adults, even when thousands of eligible low-income children are still lacking coverage.
 
Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) faulted Democrats for “pushing a partisan bill that I believe is just the first step towards socialized healthcare.”
 
"Many states have done a good job of keeping the focus of their SCHIP programs on low-income children,” Bunning said. “However, other states have expanded their SCHIP programs to cover children in families most of us wouldn’t consider low income. Some states are even covering adults, including parents and childless adults. This was not the original intent of SCHIP.”
 
Republicans tried to limit the scope of the Democrats’ bill, but their Kids First Act failed. The Republican plan would have imposed lower income limits on SCHIP enrollees, and it would have banned the use of federal money to cover children of newly arrived legal immigrants.
 
Current law requires a five-year waiting period before legal immigrants become eligible for coverage under Medicaid and SCHIP. Democrats said removing the ban would help children before small health problems became big ones.
 
The House now will vote on the Senate bill and then send it to President Obama for his signature.
 
In 2007, former President George W. Bush twice vetoed bills to expand SCHIP.

(The Associated Press provided some of the information used in this report.)