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Bush calls for compromise on children’s healthcare

Times Staff Writer

President Bush indicated Saturday that he would be willing to accept a larger increase for a children’s health insurance program than the one he has proposed, but defended his veto of the expansion of coverage approved by Congress.

Bush’s long-promised veto Wednesday set off an ideological battle about who holds responsibility for extending healthcare benefits to uninsured children: the government or the private sector.

The congressional bill would spend $60 billion over five years to expand health coverage for children of the working poor and middle class, and pay for it with higher tobacco taxes. Bush has offered $30 billion, a 20% increase from the current levels but not enough to maintain the existing enrollment in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, budget analysts say.

The program is managed by states within federal guidelines and serves about 6 million children, including about 800,000 in California. An estimated 9 million children are uninsured in the U.S., and the number has been rising as the nation’s employers cut back coverage.

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Bush’s veto led one Democratic lawmaker to call the president “Ebenezer Scrooge” last week, while a GOP pollster noted that “it will take some superb communications to persuade voters that the White House really is on the side of children’s health.”

During his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush called for a compromise, though he offered no specifics.

“If putting poor children first takes a little more than the 20% increase I have proposed in my budget for SCHIP, I am willing to work with leaders in Congress to find the additional money,” he said.

Bush has hinted he is open to a compromise but still has not made clear what he is willing to accept. He continued to describe the measure that he vetoed as “deeply flawed,” contending that the congressional plan is “an incremental step toward their goal of government-run healthcare for every American,” which he believes is “the wrong direction for our country.”

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House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said most children enrolled in SCHIP got their coverage through private insurers who had state contracts, even though the government subsidized the benefits.

“The truth is, America’s largest private insurance lobbying group supports this bill -- as do America’s doctors, nurses, children’s advocates and, most importantly, 72% of Americans,” Hoyer said in the Democrats’ response to Bush’s radio address.

The current law, which remains in effect while the debate about reauthorizing it continues, covers children in families earning up to $40,000 a year, about twice the federal poverty level. But some states received permission to extend eligibility to families with higher incomes, and the bill would authorize states to allow households with an income of about $60,000 a year to enroll their children in SCHIP.

Bush also said that six states project that they will spend more SCHIP money on adults than they do on children in this fiscal year. However, those states got federal permission, in many instances during the time Bush has been in office, to cover adults. The president urged both parties to come together to support a bill “that moves adults off this children’s program.”

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Democrats have promised to try to override the president’s veto later this month.

judy.pasternak@latimes.com


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