This vote was on final passage of a bill that would reauthorize the State Children’s Health Insurance Program at $60.2 billion over five years (a $35.2 billion expansion over current law). To offset the cost of expansion, the bill would increase the federal tax on cigarettes by 61 cents, to $1 per pack. The SCHIP program – funded primarily through taxes on tobacco products -- helps low income families with children afford health insurance, and currently covers about 6 million kids. It is intended to cover children from families that are too well-off to qualify for Medicaid, but who are poor enough to have difficulty affording health coverage from a private insurer. The bill is estimated to roughly double the amount of kids who will be eligible for coverage under SCHIP, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Beyond expanding the amount of money allocated to SCHIP, the bill also would allow coverage for children whose families earn up to 300 percent above the federal poverty line (the current limit, in most cases, is 200 percent). (For a single parent with two children, 300 percent above the poverty line would equal $51,510 per year). The bill also would phase out coverage of very poor adults, which some states currently allow, by Oct. 1, 2009.
President Bush threatened to veto the bill, saying that SCHIP only needs about a $5 billion increase over five years in order to sustain the current rolls – much less than the $35.2 billion expansion envisioned in this bill. Bush and many other Republicans have characterized the expansion of SCHIP as a thinly veiled attempt to create an enormous new government health entitlement spending program, such as Medicaid. Republicans also have complained bitterly that the program as it stands allows some states to cover adults and children from families who make three to four times the federal poverty level. As such, during debate on the bill Republicans repeatedly (and mostly unsuccessfully) sought to cut funds in the bill or clamp down on eligibility for coverage under the program.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said SCHIP has accomplished what it was originally designed to do, and that the Senate should have drafted a reauthorization bill that maintained what has been accomplished, rather than such a large increase in the program.
“When the program came up for reauthorization, this Senate’s goal should have been to retain what works, and to strengthen the law in areas where it has been misused. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. SCHIP was originally created to help the needy. But it is clear the authors of this new proposal have overreached. Some have seized the reauthorization of SCHIP as a license to raise taxes, increase spending, and take a giant leap forward into the land of government-run health care,” McConnell said.
Typically, Democrats repeatedly countered that the aim was to ensure that as many children as possible who need health care are not left wanting. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he is proud of the final bill.
“There were some on the other side of the aisle who wanted to place further restrictions on those covered by this bill and decrease the funding to $15 million. I know that there were others on this side of the aisle who wanted to add benefits and increase the funding to $50 billion. Individually, we were each tempted by some of the suggested changes in the more than 86 amendments to this bill,” Rockefeller said. “But the fundamental goal has been sustained throughout our debates and votes—expanding access to health care for millions of children, including those eligible children who are not yet enrolled.”
By a vote of 68-31, the Senate passed the bill, defying President Bush’s veto threat in the process. Every Democrat present voted for the bill. Of Republicans present, 31 voted against the bill, and 18 voted for it. The end result was that the Senate passed the bill that would reauthorize and expand the SCHIP program and the measure was sent to the House for an eventual conference committee, where the two chambers meet to hammer out differences between two versions of the same bill.