Kids' Health Care Bill Advances, Bush Veto Looms - Southern Maryland Headline News

Kids' Health Care Bill Advances, Bush Veto Looms

By MICHAEL WALSH, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - More than 50,000 Maryland children could be uninsured next year if President Bush makes good on his threat to veto the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which was passed by the Senate Thursday.

Despite the bipartisan and bicameral majority support, President Bush is threatening to veto the bill, calling it a step in the direction of government-run health care.

"There is no disagreement on the goal," said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt in a conference call. "But there is disagreement on the path."

The Senate's 67-29 vote endorses a $35 billion expansion of the program, which would give coverage to 4.4 million previously uninsured children in addition to the 6 million the program already covers.

The program is set to expire on Sept. 30, and covers children who do not qualify for Medicaid and cannot afford private health care.

Maryland has 58,606 children slated to lose coverage if the bill is vetoed by Bush, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the fifth most in the country.

Members of the Maryland delegation see the veto threat as an attack on uninsured children.

"President Bush must not turn his back on America's children in need," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., in a statement. "Congress has fulfilled our responsibilities to America's families, now the president must stand by his. This program fills the gap for children who might otherwise have to go without any health care at all."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, expressed regret for the president's veto threat on the floor Tuesday before the House passed the bill, 265-169.

"I am disappointed that he will wield his veto pen on such promising legislation," Van Hollen said. "I hope he will reconsider his position and help Congress provide health insurance to millions of America's children."

The Senate vote, with 18 Republicans voting for the bill, is veto-proof, but in the House, the vote was 19 votes short of a veto-proof margin.

Enrollment in SCHIP increased by 6.9 percent from 2005-2006 for Maryland, resulting in a funding shortage for the program.

Maryland has spent more than 2.5 times the amount of its federal funding, according to John Folkemer, Maryland deputy secretary for health care financing.

Maryland had 101,552 children enrolled in the program in June 2006, 12th in the nation.

If the law passes, Maryland is allocated for about $178 million and will not have to rely on reallocations from other states to fund the program, he said.

"We'll definitely cover what we need," Folkemer said, noting that expeditures for the state were around $162 million.

The state doesn't have a plan B if the bill is vetoed, he said, but something will have to be done and quickly.

"We know we're way short of money," Folkemer said. "If the current funding stays level, we'll have enough to last for about five months."

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