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House votes to boost child health program

WASHINGTON – Ignoring a presidential veto threat, the House of Representatives passed sweeping Democratic legislation Wednesday that would nearly triple the budget for a popular health insurance program for low-income children.

By a 225-204 vote largely along party lines, the Children’s Health and Medicare Protection Act moved a step closer to becoming law after a series of stalling tactics by Republicans failed.

Heated debate highlighted the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans over health care. Republicans oppose a larger government role, Democrats generally favor it, and their divergent views frame the debate over universal health coverage in the 2008 presidential election and beyond.

The legislation would provide a five-year, $48 billion funding boost for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. It’s designed to cover children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private health insurance.

The measure would be funded, in part, through cuts in federal payments to private HMOs that provide Medicare coverage. Analysts have found that those payments are 12 percent higher than the cost of covering seniors under the standard Medicare program. The bill also would be financed with higher taxes on tobacco products, including a 45-cent-per-pack increase for cigarettes.

Of the estimated 9 million uninsured youngsters in the U.S., 5 million to 6 million are eligible for coverage under SCHIP or Medicaid, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO projects that the bill would cover about 5 million of them.

The Senate is expected to vote later this week on a $35 billion companion bill that also would be financed by higher taxes on tobacco products. If that measure passes, as expected, the victories would be one of the signature accomplishments for Democrats since they took control of Congress last January.

The Democrats’ celebration probably will be short-lived, however. President Bush has vowed to veto the Senate and House bills, which would be the largest expansions of government-subsidized health care since the Medicare prescription-drug benefit was established in 2003.

In a statement Wednesday, the White House called the House measure a “wholesale, unapologetic move to government-run health care for large classes of children and a return to one-size-fits-all choices for Medicare beneficiaries.”

Bush wants to expand the program by $1 billion a year, bringing total spending to $30 billion over the five years. The CBO estimates that 800,000 children in the SCHIP program will lose coverage within five years without additional funding over the program’s current $5 billion-a-year budget.


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