LYNN NEARY, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
Both the House and Senate last week passed bills to extend and expand a popular program that provides health insurance to children of the working poor. President Bush has vowed a veto.
Now as members retreat to their districts for the August recess, the real politicking begins.
But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, some of the claims being made about the measure don't stand up to scrutiny.
JULIE ROVNER: The single biggest complaint opponents have about both the House and Senate bills to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP, is that they would expand the program too much. Critics say the bill would cover kids who are wealthier than those the program was designed to serve.
Here's former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
Mr. DENNIS HASTERT (Former Republican Representative, Illinois; Former House Speaker): This bill covers people up to four times of poverty. That is a family of four earning $82,000 a year.
ROVNER: Hastert's referring to the fact that one state, New York, has applied for a waiver to allow coverage for children and families who make that much. It's true the bill could allow the administration to grant that waiver.
Cindy Mann of the Georgetown Center for Children and Families said that because cost for living and health care vary, states were always supposed to have that kind of flexibility.
Ms. CINDY MANN (Executive Director, Georgetown University Center for Children and Families): The same package of goods and services that might cost somebody $20,000 in Nebraska would actually cost over $50,000 if you're in California or if you're in Connecticut.
ROVNER: Or in New York. But New York is the exception to the rule, says Mann, who ran the SCHIP program during the Clinton administration. In fact, neither bill would expand SCHIP eligibility beyond current levels. And she says the Senate bill would actually reduce eligibility in some cases.
Ms. MANN: Basically the bill, both in the Senate and the House, focus very sharply on the lowest income children and those children who are now eligible for Medicaid or for CHIP, but not enrolled.
ROVNER: Another heated issue is whether or not the bills allow coverage of illegal immigrant. Here is the claim from Republican Congressman John Sullivan of Oklahoma.
Representative JOHN SULLIVAN (Republican, Oklahoma): It's really astounding that there's nothing in this bill that stops states from carrying illegal aliens. And people have come up to me and said, you know, the Democrats, the people in the Senate wouldn't allow illegal aliens get social security benefits, now, they want to give them free health care.
ROVNER: Well, not exactly. Illegal immigrants would continue to be barred from participation in both Medicaid and SCHIP. What would change is that states could go back to their old rules for determining what kind of documentations citizens have to provide to get Medicaid.
Since last year, applicants have been required to prove their citizenship by providing original documents like birth certificates and picture IDs. Despite what Sullivan and other critics imply, recent studies by the states and the Government Accountability Office confirmed that hardly any non-citizens have been trying to get benefits improperly, instead having to come up with all those documents is proving a barrier to everyone, says Donna Cohen Ross of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Ms. DONNA COHEN ROSS (Director of Outreach, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): What it is in fact doing is keeping eligible U.S. citizens from getting the health coverage that they need and that they qualify for.
ROVNER: It's not just critics of the bill who are playing a little fast and loose. For Democrats, the hardest part of assembling their bills was figuring out how to offset the added SCHIP cost - $35 billion over five years in the Senate bill and $50 billion in the House version - so as not to add to the federal deficit.
Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad says they have managed that.
Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota; Chairman, Senate Budget Committee): Some have said this does not comply with the budget rules. That is simply not true.
ROVNER: What he's not saying is that they have used some budgeting slight of hand to balance the books. The tobacco tax used to finance the Senate bill didn't raise quite enough money to pay for the plan over the next 10 years. No problem, Conrad says, just fund SCHIP for the first five.
Sen. CONRAD: Many of us hope and believe that we'll have fundamental health care reform before the second five years are ever reached.
ROVNER: Good luck with that. Given the depth of disagreement here, however, lawmakers will be lucky just to get the Children's Health Insurance Program renewed before it expires at the end of September.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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