GATES — Despite pleas from local health-care advocates, two local congressmen did not support the failed effort in the House of Representatives to override President George W. Bush’s veto of legislation that would have expanded the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, also known as SCHIP.
According to the Catholic Health Association, the bill would have expanded SCHIP by $35 billion over five years by increasing the federal tax on tobacco products by 61 cents per pack. This would have allowed SCHIP to include 4 million more uninsured children; it currently insures 6 million children.
The Senate approved the SCHIP legislation in a veto-proof vote Sept. 27, but the House’s Sept. 25 approval of the measure fell 19 votes shy of being veto-proof. As he had promised, Bush vetoed the expansion legislation Oct. 3 and announced Oct. 16 that he had designated three advisers to hammer out a compromise with Congress.
According to the administration, the president has offered a 20-percent increase in funding but has said he wants to make sure 95 percent of the poorest segment of children are covered — or an additional 500,000 uninsured children — before covering uninsured children whose families are at higher income levels.
SCHIP supporters in the House tried to garner support for a veto override, but fell 13 votes short of doing so when the issue came up for a vote on Oct. 17.
The day before the House override vote, area health-care advocates held a press conference at the diocesan Pastoral Center to encourage Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-Clarence, and Rep. Randy Kuhl, R-Hammondsport, to vote for the veto override. Later that day, several area activists protested in front of Kuhl’s Fairport office, Reynolds’ Greece office and at a downtown Rochester intersection.
During the press conference, copies of letters from Bishop Matthew H. Clark to Reynolds and Kuhl were distributed; the letters asked the congressmen to support the override.
“I view health care as a basic right of every individual, intrinsic in the dignity of the human person; and support state and federal efforts to expand opportunities for coverage for the most vulnerable members of our communities,” Bishop Clark said in his letter.
Press conference speakers — the Rev. Richard Myers, president of the Greater Rochester Community of Churches; Dr. Laura Shone, assistant professor of pediatrics at Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong; Wade Norwood, director of community engagement for Finger Lakes Health Systems; Marsha Dumka, executive director of Rochester Childfirst Network and advocacy director for the Early Childhood Development Initiative; and Marvin Mich, director of social policy for Rochester’s Catholic Family Center — also asked for the congressmen’s override support.
Rev. Myers said he considers the issue to be a matter of national security, because healthy children do better in school and are able to build a healthier nation.
“For less than one month of (paying for) the war in Iraq, we can insure kids for one year,” he noted.
Shone pointed out that SCHIP has greatly increased children’s access to care, noting that even if some low-income families have access to private insurance, few are able to afford it because it often costs thousands of dollars.
“The argument that (the SCHIP expansion) will cause thousands of families to drop private insurance for SCHIP is simply not true,” she said.
In response, both congressmen said they supported a Sept. 26 vote funding SCHIP through 2008 — a measure that passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by the president — but that they felt the proposed expansion bill cost too much and covered too many adults at the expense of children.
L.D. Platt, director of communications for Reynolds, said the congressman also was concerned that the funding for the expansion bill only extended out five years.
In a statement, Kuhl said one reason he did not support SCHIP expansion is that it would allow some health-care coverage for adults.
“When SCHIP was initiated ten years ago, its objective was not to provide health coverage to more adults than low-income children,” Kuhl’s statement said. “However, the Democratic SCHIP bill covers adults through FY 2012 and childless adults through FY 2009.”
The Catholic Health Association said the vetoed bill would have given states the option to cover low-income pregnant women, but would have phased out coverage of nonpregnant adults and transitioned parental coverage to lower federal payments.
“Besides covering adults, the Democratic SCHIP covers children in some families earning up to $83,000 a year and takes 2 million children off their private health insurance,” Kuhl said in his statement.
In New York, SCHIP partially funds the Child Health Plus program, which covers children in poor families who are not eligible for Medicaid but do not have or cannot obtain affordable health-insurance coverage. In Monroe County alone, 11,993 children lack health insurance, Mich said during the press conference. About 8,000 of them could be covered if the program were expanded, he said.
Due to the high cost of living downstate, New York is the only state to have sought to expand eligibility to cover families whose income is four times the federal poverty level; for a family of four, that would be up to $83,000, the Catholic Health Association said.
However, New York’s eligibility expansion has been the subject of a fight between federal and state officials. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s administration announced in early October that it would sue the Bush administration, which imposed new rules in August blocking states from expanding eligibility beyond twice the federal poverty level.
Spitzer’s administration alleges that the new federal rules conflict with the SCHIP law, and that the Bush administration issued the rules without allowing opportunity for public comment. Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, Arizona, California and New Hampshire will participate in the suit either as plaintiffs or by filing supporting briefs, Spitzer’s administration said.
Reynolds has supported New York’s expanded SCHIP eligibility, Platt said.
“He supports full state flexibility, and he has written a letter on behalf of New York state getting a waiver (for its less-restrictive eligibility requirements),” Platt said.
As the debate over SCHIP expansion continues, diocesan officials say that a resolution is needed soon. According to Bishop Clark, if the SCHIP bill is not reauthorized on time, it would also allow new legal definitions of habilitation and rehabilitation to be put in place, which could have negative consequences for people with developmental disabilities and mental-health needs.
“The new proposed definitions would seriously degrade the services provided to people with developmental disabilities and people (including veterans) with mental health needs,” Bishop Clark said in his letter.