President Obama on Wednesday signed legislation extending health coverage to 4 million additional uninsured children, providing a big boost to his plan to overhaul the country's health care system.
The House passed the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, by an overwhelming majority earlier in the day. The program calls for $32.8 billion to be spent to insure children from lower-income homes through 2013. An estimated 2.4 million children who would have access to private insurance are also expected to join the rolls.
The House approved the measure on a 290-135 vote with the backing of most Democrats and 40 Republicans.
"Today, with one of the first bills that I sign reauthorizing the Children's Health Insurance Program, we fulfill one of the highest responsibilities that we have — to ensure the health and well-being of our nation's children," Obama said.
Opponents criticized the cost of the legislation, saying it would cover some children who could be privately insured.
"The Democrats continue to push their government-run health care agenda — universal coverage as they call it," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX).
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said most Americans support SCHIP, particularly as the economy worsens and more people lose their jobs.
"For every 1 percent increase in unemployment, it is estimated as many as 1.5 million Americans will lose their health care coverage," Pelosi said.
Over the next four years, up to 13 million children could be covered under the plan. It will be funded by a 62-cent increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes, bringing the total federal excise tax to $1.01 a pack.
An estimated 7 million children are now enrolled in SCHIP. The program was created in 1997 to help children in families whose incomes were too high to quality for Medicaid but too low to afford private coverage. Federal money for the program was set to expire March 31.
Former president George W. Bush twice vetoed a similar spending increase in 2007, but Democrats made its passage a priority in 2009.
The plan sailed through the Senate last week.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.