Politicians Bicker; Clock Ticks on Kids' Health

Pres. Bush vows to veto a Democratic proposal for expanded coverage.

July 29, 2007 — -- Michael Post, a minister, and his wife Connie, who works for a small business, earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. But, private insurance is out of reach for the Dalton, Ga., family — nor would it cover therapy for their 4-year-old daughter Cadence, who is autistic.

"It just seems those of us in the middle class are sort of squeezed out. We pay taxes. We fund Medicaid programs for lower-income [people]," says Connie. "We just want an insurance program we can afford, and it's hard to find, very hard to find."

Right now, they rely on PeachCare, Georgia's version of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) — a federal-state partnership that was launched a decade ago to provide coverage for children from lower income families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Experts say the program has been a success so far.

"The SCHIP program has made a huge difference in expanding coverage to children who did not have it before," says Ron Pollack, executive director of the advocacy group Families USA.

The program is scheduled to end Sept. 30 unless Congress reauthorizes it. And with 9 million children still lacking health insurance nationwide, Democrats in Congress want to expand SCHIP.

A Senate bill that has attracted bipartisan support would increase spending on the program by $35 billion over 5 years, while a Democratic House bill would increase it by $50 billion. They would pay for the expansion largely by raising taxes on tobacco products.

President Bush wants to add just $5 billion to the program, and has vowed to veto the Democratic proposals. He says expanding the program that much would give many parents an incentive to drop their private insurance plans, and would shift the whole country toward a government-run health care system.

Republican critics also say SCHIP is already doing more than it should. Since it allows states flexibility in how they use the funds, three states have wound up providing coverage to more adults under the program than children.

"People don't want the government running health care," says Health and Human Services secretary Michael Leavitt. "To have the Children's Health Insurance plan — as friendly as that sounds — becoming the vehicle to essentially have the government insure everyone, would be a mistake."

Pollack calls that argument "nonsense."

"The overwhelming majority of people who have health coverage, whether they are children or adults, get it in the private sector — they get it through their employer," Pollack says.

"Nobody is trying to change that. What we hope will happen, however, is those people who can't get coverage in the private sector — because their employer does not provide coverage and their income is so sparse, they can't pay for insurance — that there [will] be an adequate safety net for that group of people."

Polls show the public is strongly in favor of expanding SCHIP. A nationwide survey by Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families found that 91 percent of Americans wanted Congress to help states cover more uninsured children.

Under the president's plan, families like the Posts would not even be covered, because the president wants to cap the program at 200 percent above the poverty line — around $42,000 for a family of four. The Posts' income puts them at 220 percent above poverty.

Michael Post says he still considers himself a conservative. But, trying to get help for his autistic daughter has changed his outlook somewhat.

"I have always believed in less government and more personal responsibility," he says. "All I can say is, when you find out your child is a special needs child, you begin to see you need extra help."

ABC News' Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.