Immigration Debate Roils Children's Health Bill

The last time the Senate voted to expand the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program, a year and a half ago, it passed by a wide bipartisan margin that was more than enough to override the promised veto from then-President George W. Bush.

That measure also passed in the House — but failed to muster the needed two-thirds majority for an override. So Democrats made compromises to try to drum up support. It didn't work, and Bush vetoed the bill twice.

The SCHIP bill the Senate takes up this week is in many ways similar to the one that failed to become law in 2007. However, the latest version comes without some of the past compromises, and Republican support for the measure has faded dramatically.

"I don't think undoing agreements that have been made and veering toward partisanship instead of cooperation is the change that people believe in," said Charles Grassley (R-IA), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Changes Provoke Disagreement

Like the previous measure, the new bill would extend the SCHIP program, which last year covered 7.4 million children in families whose incomes were too high to qualify for Medicaid but couldn't afford private health insurance. The bill would also provide — largely through a 61 cents-per-pack increase in the federal cigarette tax — enough funding to expand the program to an additional 4 million children by the year 2013.

But Republicans are unhappy with Democrats' decision to roll back some of the compromises. And they are particularly outraged over something that wasn't included in the 2007 measure — repealing a five-year waiting period for the children of legal immigrants to qualify for SCHIP or Medicaid.

"It would seem to me that we are giving more incentives for folks to come to the United States, not just to participate in the American dream, but to get on the government dole," said Sen. John Ensign (R-NV). "And I think this is exactly the wrong direction we should be going with this legislation."

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) complained that the bill would add "huge costs" to the SCHIP program at a time when "we acknowledge that we can't even pay for things like, for example, the physician update, every year, whereby American doctors take care of American citizens in the Medicare program."

Due to a glitch in the Medicare funding formula, Congress has had to come up with billions of dollars each year for the past several years to prevent large cuts in pay to doctors who treat Medicare patients.

Support For Repeal Of Waiting Period

Those who supported lifting the five-year waiting period, however, say it is unfair to ask those who are in the country legally and pay taxes to ask their children to go without needed medical care. "I believe that no lawfully present child in this country should be required to wait five years before they can get health care," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) said immigrants already have an incentive to come to the United States illegally to have their children, because anyone born here is entitled to benefits as a citizen. Yet if that same family follows all the rules and enters legally, he says, "we are going to deny them the same benefits they would have had if they had come in illegally. And that just doesn't make any sense."

The Senate is expected to debate the bill on the floor for much of the week. The House passed its version Jan. 14.

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