Denying Children

The New York Times

The House approved a revised bill to finance the children’s health insurance program yesterday by a 265-to-142 margin — a strong mandate, but still not enough to overcome another promised veto by President Bush.

If the president carries out this threat, we hope Congressional tacticians can find a way to enact this important measure over the adamant, ideologically driven opposition of Mr. Bush and House Republican leaders. The health of millions of children who lack insurance cannot be held hostage to the president’s visceral distaste for government and its essential role to protect the weak, or his desire to protect the tobacco industry.

House Democrats tried hard to address the issues raised and relentlessly hyped by Republican critics. The bill would speed up the removal of childless adults who have been enrolled in the program in a handful of states, and would reduce the enrollment of parents, even though including parents is often the best way to reach their children.

Most important in the battle for public opinion, critics can no longer charge that the bill would cover children in families earning up to $83,000. That was always hype since the only state where that might have happened was New York — where health costs are especially high. The new bill would provide federal matching money to cover only children in families with incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or almost $62,000 for a family of four. The only exception is that New Jersey could continue to provide coverage to families who earn up to $72,000 — if the state ranks high in covering the poorest children.

Our own feeling is that states where the cost of living is high should be able to cover middle-class families. But if limiting the program to 300 percent of the poverty level is necessary to get this important legislation enacted, that would be a price worth paying.

The administration says it does not want to add $35 billion more to enlarge the program, known as S-chip, over the next five years. The House bill would pay for that largely by raising tobacco taxes, but that does not satisfy the White House. The president is also opposed to enlarging a government-financed insurance program that he says might compete with private insurance. To allay those fears , the new bill would encourage premium assistance to help families buy private policies and require all states to come up with policies to lessen the incentive to switch to S-chip.

House Republicans still wanted more. They sought to eliminate all adults from the program, except pregnant women, and to base eligibility on gross income — with no ability to discount spending on child care or other vital needs. The Republicans also wanted to impose arduous documentation requirements to ensure that no illegal immigrants are enrolled, even though there is little or no evidence that any ever have been.

The House bill also had the backing of many Senate Republicans, who strongly support expanding S-chip. But not a single House Republican who had supported the president’s previous veto was willing to shift sides yesterday. Clearly these Republicans care more about protecting their party’s ideology — they call it “principles” — than protecting America’s children.