Bill offers boost in insuring state's kids

WASHINGTON - Even as President Bush threatens a veto, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill Thursday that could help cut the number of children in Washington state without health insurance by roughly half.

The measure would increase federal funding for children's health insurance by $35 billion nationwide. It also would eliminate a provision in the program that has cost Washington state $200 million over the past 10 years because it has been more aggressive than other states in covering youngsters.

"This is very good for the state," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a member of the committee, said of the bill. "We were being penalized even though we had done good work. This is the big fix."

Under the bill, Cantwell said, the amount of federal funding Washington state would receive from the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, would nearly triple from $15 million to $43 million annually. By 2012, it could quadruple to $60 million or even more.

The state has 73,000 children without health insurance. The last session of the Legislature approved legislation to cover an additional 38,000 children over the next two years. The federal money is considered critical if the state is to reach that goal.

"We think this modification to the (federal program) will help strengthen Washington state's safety net when it comes to children's health," said Doug Porter, assistant secretary of the state Health and Recovery Services Administration in Olympia.

In the early 1990s, Washington state decided to insure low-­income children through its Medicaid program. But when Congress approved the children's health insurance program in 1997, it barred states from transferring kids from Medicaid to the new program.

Because of that provision, Washington had been unable to tap all of the federal funding for children's health care it was allotted. What wasn't used was returned to the federal government and allocated to other states.

'More access'

Cantwell said that provision was eliminated in the new bill and that Washington now will be able to use all of its federal allotment, which will be even bigger because of the overall increase in funding for the program.

"It gives us far more access to the program," she said.

Bush had proposed a $5 billion increase in funding for the program over five years, while Democratic leaders in the House had proposed a $50 billion increase. The bipartisan compromise agreed to by the committee will provide an additional $35 billion. It will be paid for by levying a 61-cent-a-pack increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes.

The White House has insisted SCHIP is a government-run health care program that would be better handled by the private sector.

In threatening to veto the Senate bill, Bush said earlier this week that the expanded program would, in some cases, cover children in families earning $80,000 a year and encourage people to drop their private insurance in order to join the government program.

"If Congress continues to insist upon expanding health care through the SCHIP program - which, by the way, would entail a huge tax increase for the American people - I will veto the bill," Bush said.

Cantwell and Porter said a presidential veto would be a mistake.

"We think this is good policy and good politics," said Porter. "We hope he doesn't veto it."

Cantwell said she expected a huge debate when the bill comes to the Senate floor and the House begins consideration. The House has yet to tackle its version of the bill.

"This is a priority for Democrats," Cantwell said. "Unfortunately, the president isn't on board."