Kids' insurance veto came as expected; fight's on

WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Wednesday vetoed a compromise bill to extend a health insurance program for children of the working poor.

Democratic leaders in Congress responded by launching an all-out effort to override his decision. But they face an uphill battle in the House.

"The president should have passed this bill," said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, who campaigned hard for the legislation. "It is hard to imagine why he would not pass health care for our children."

Bush has criticized the legislation as too costly. And he complained that it would undermine private insurance by extending benefits to some middle-class families at the expense of the poor; he also has questioned the decision by Congress to use tobacco taxes to pay for children's health care, saying cigarette taxes are not a reliable source of permanent funding, because fewer people are smoking.

"This bill would shift (the program) away from its original purpose," he told Congress. "Our goal should be to move children who have no health insurance to private coverage, not to move children who already have private health insurance to government coverage."

But locally, health care providers said the veto might reduce services.

In Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties, about 40,000 people are covered under the program at stake, which is known in California as Healthy Families. As health insurance costs increase, the program needs more money to keep serving the same people, said David Hurst, director of marketing for the Health Plan of San Joaquin, which administers the program. "The veto not only affects expansion but also calls into question whether it is sustainable at its current level because of inflationary costs," he said.

The organization doesn't take stances on legislation.

Mary Ann Lee, managing director of Stanislaus County's Health Services Agency, said she is waiting to hear from the state and health organizations about the possible impact.

Bush's counterplan would slash California's share by up to $739 million during the next five years and reduce the number of children eligible, according to the California HealthCare Foundation.

$60B over five-year period

As passed by Congress, the bill would have renewed and expanded the federal funding source for the program, known as State Children's Health Insurance Program, and allocated $60 billion over five years to cover an estimated 9 million to 10 million children nationwide. About 6 million are enrolled.

California gets the largest share of the money.

The Managed Risk Medical Insurance Board estimated the bill would have increased the state's allotment from $800 million this year to about $1.4 billion next year and increased in following years to meet medical inflation and population increases.

To pay for broadening the program, Congress wants to boost federal tobacco taxes, raising the levy on cigarettes to $1 a pack from 39 cents.

Despite the veto, Bush has said he seeks a deal with Congress to renew the program for five years, albeit at closer to $30 billion in funding. The children's health insurance program technically expired Sunday, but Congress and the president have agreed on a temporary extension through mid-November.

Yet with polls showing strong public support for covering uninsured children, Democratic leaders say they are in no mood for more compromises. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said last week that Congress would keep sending the legislation to Bush until he reconsidered.

Democrats say they think that given time, they can convert some of the president's GOP supporters in the House.

"I have all the confidence that they will not be able to face the American people (after) taking an open-wallet approach to the war in Iraq, and then when it comes to health care, telling American children to take a hike," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who ranks fourth in the party's House leadership. "I don't think that's a sustainable approach, especially when you get closer to Election Day."

But Republicans accused Democrats of politicizing a program that has enjoyed support from both parties.

Democrats are pursuing "a political strategy and not a policy strategy," said Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., a leader on health care issues. "If they are concerned about continuing the assistance to kids, they ought to be concerned about getting a product to the president that he can sign."

The congressional bill passed 67 to 29 in the Senate last week, with enough support to override a veto. But the 265-159 House vote fell short of the two-thirds margin needed. A House vote to override Bush's veto could come as early as next week, and Republican leaders say they are certain that their rank-and-file members will support the president's position.