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The Senate last night passed a bill to renew and expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as S-CHIP. It got 68 votes, and that's more than enough to override a threatened veto from President Bush. Still, there are other hurdles to be overcome before the bill becomes law. The first: merging the Senate's bill with a very different version passed by the House.
As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, there's not much time for Congress to act. The S-CHIP program expires at the end of September.
JULIE ROVNER: Let's start with something everyone agrees on. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and the House and President Bush all say they want to renew the S-CHIP program, if only to help people like Kitty Deems Burget(ph) of Canton, Ohio.
During a visit to the Capitol this week, she said when S-CHIP began in 1997 she was a widow with two children. She worked at a small nonprofit agency that didn't offer health insurance. S-CHIP was a huge help, even though it came with strings.
Ms. KITTY DEEMS BURGET: At first the eligibility cap was 150 percent of poverty. This required me to turned down raises and refuse additional hours at my job in order to keep my children enrolled. The increase to 200 percent of poverty helped, but we still went without other things in order to retain the medical coverage.
ROVNER: But when her daughter began experiencing serious mental health problems, the coverage became a literal lifeline, Burget said.
Ms. BURGET: Without access to early mental health care, she might be locked up in a room somewhere talking to people who aren't there, and the taxpayers would be paying a lot more for that than they did for her treatment. The difference was Ohio's S-CHIP program, Healthy Start.
ROVNER: In an effort to help more families like the Burgets, a bipartisan group of senators that included West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller spent months creating a bill that would add $35 billion to the program over the next five years. It would be funded by a 61 cents per pack increase in the federal cigarette tax.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): We have struggled honestly and openly to bring out the issues, and to make sure that not only all the kids who had the insurance kept it, but that we added on more.
ROVNER: Over the course of the week, sponsors fended off both Republican amendments to scale the package back and Democratic amendments to make it larger. Those were the easy hurdles. Now senators will have to try to reconcile their more modest bill with a sprawling House bill that not only adds more money to the S-CHIP program, but also makes dramatic changes to the Medicare program.
An even bigger roadblock is the continuing opposition from the White House. President Bush says he'll accept no more than a $5 billion increase for the S-CHIP program over the next five years, and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said in an interview that the administration probably won't support any tax increase to fund that coverage.
Secretary MIKE LEAVITT (Department of Health and Human Services): No matter what tax it is, if you increase the amount and number of people who are covered by government insurance, you're ultimately going to see higher taxes, you're going to see long waiting lines, and you're also going to see lower quality.
ROVNER: But last night at least, just a few hours before the final vote, Democratic Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus says he was taking it one step at a time.
Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): My goal right now is let's just get a good, big vote for a very good bill. I think that'll help set us up positively for whatever next comes down the road.
ROVNER: Baucus got that good big vote, an override majority that senators hope will help win over the House and maybe even the president.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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