House Backs Children's Health Insurance Bill
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Last evening brought this news from Capitol Hill. The House passed a major health care bill that would add $50 billion to a federal program now providing health coverage to children of the working poor. That's the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as the SCHIP. The bill also would raise cigarette taxes and make changes to the Medicare program.
The issue of children's health insurance is popular, still the debate was nasty and the final vote split along partisan lines.
As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, it was nearly the mirror image of the chamber's last big health care debate, four years ago.
JULIE ROVNER: Renewing the SCHIP program, which otherwise expires September 30th, has been one of the top priorities for congressional Democrats. So after weeks of backroom dealing to roundup the votes, it was with some relief that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was finally able to proclaim victory on the floor yesterday.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; U.S. House Majority Leader): Under this bill, 11,000 million American children - six million who currently are covered under SCHIP and an additional five million children who currently lack health insurance - will have access to quality, affordable health insurance.
ROVNER: The SCHIP program, which covers mostly children and families of the working poor, was bipartisan when it was founded a decade ago. But Republicans Jeb Hensarling of Texas said the Democrat's bill to add $50 billion to the program goes too far.
Representative JEB HENSARLING (Republican, Texas): Mr. Speaker, today the Democrat majority in Congress will no doubt ram through a bill representing the single-largest step in Washington-controlled, bureaucratized, rationed, socialized healthcare.
ROVNER: For many watching the debate yesterday it was almost a through-the-looking-glass moment, an exact parallel to the Medicare prescription drug bill Republicans run through the chamber on a similar party line vote exactly four years ago this week. Then as now, the party in power was pushing a politically popular issue, eager to score an electoral victory before sending members home for their month-long summer break.
And then as now, the bill also contained dozens of unrelated provisions the minor party despised. In the case of yesterday's bill, Democrats would actually repeal parts of the 2003 Medicare bill to finance the SCHIP expansion. That's drawn a veto threat from President Bush and outraged Republicans like Virginia's Eric Cantor.
Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): How do they pay for this? They pay for this largely by cutting Medicare. That's what we're about here, choosing to cut Medicare, cut seniors ability to have a choice under the Medicare program.
ROVNER: But Democrats like Jan Schakowsky of Illinois said the cuts in the bill to the Medicare Advantage private plan program aren't aimed at seniors, but at in insurance companies that non-partisan budget officials say are being overpaid.
Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): Let's be clear, the Medicare Advantage HMOs are reaping overpayments of up to 40 percent.
ROVNER: Yet another parallel with the Medicare debate of four years ago is that with time running short, Democrats didn't give Republicans much of a say in the process, just as the Republicans hadn't let them participate. Yesterday, the complaints came from House Minority Leader John Boehner.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): We were presented with a 488-page bill the night before the markup. And now we've brought this to the floor without a markup in committee, no amendments allowed to be offered by the minority and a limited time for debate.
ROVNER: Still, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel warned his Republican colleagues: In the end, children won't remember how the minority was treated in the debate, but they will remember if they lose their health insurance come October 1st.
Representative CHARLIE RANGEL (Democrat, New York): If you don't do this, if they find themselves without healthcare, if their parents could not be productive on the job because they're worried about their kids, you explain it that we weren't talking to each other, we didn't cooperate and the program just expired.
ROVNER: And the final parallel to the Medicare debate? The Senate is working on a more bipartisan companion bill to renew and expand the SCHIP program. It could come up for a final vote tonight.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.