BOISE – From Gov. Butch Otter to health care groups to advocates for the poor, there are loud calls to reauthorize the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, funding for which will expire at the end of September if Congress doesn’t act.
But all four members of Idaho’s congressional delegation voted against reauthorization bills that passed their respective houses in early August – the House’s on a close partisan vote and the Senate’s with strong bipartisan backing.
As the two houses look to resolve differences between their versions with a veto threat from President Bush hanging over them, a group of advocates for the poor from throughout the state gathered outside congressional offices in Boise on Friday and called for keeping the program running.
Terri Sterling, of Lewiston, a mother of three, said the program allowed her children to get cavities filled, glasses and health care when they need it.
“Now, they can go to the doctor when they need to – they don’t have to wait until the situation is life-threatening,” Sterling said.
Jolene Poen, a disabled mother of two from near Pocatello, said: “Gov. Otter has acknowledged the critical significance of this program for Idaho families. We are calling for Reps. (Mike) Simpson and (Bill) Sali to take a stand for the bill.”
But the reauthorization bills, which passed 225-204 in the House and 68-31 in the Senate, have drawn sharp criticism from Idaho’s all-Republican delegation. Both bills include large increases in the federal 39-cent-per-pack cigarette tax to fund the SCHIP expansion – the Senate bill increases that tax by 61 cents a pack and the House bill by 45 cents. The House bill also trims some Medicare programs for the elderly to fund the expansions to SCHIP.
Sen. Larry Craig, shortly before the Aug. 2 vote to pass the Senate version of the bill, called the measure “a massive expansion of SCHIP, I suspect in an effort to move the United States ever closer to a government-run health care system.”
Taryn Magrini, a spokeswoman for the Idaho Community Action Network, which organized Friday’s rally, said: “It is a big increase, but it is my belief that all children should have access to health care. If it’s a cigarette tax, we’ll take a cigarette tax. I just want my kids covered.”
After the rally, action network members and children dressed in chocolate chip cookie costumes went to Sali’s and Simpson’s offices to offer staffers chocolate chip cookies and call on them to be “CHIP champs” and support reauthorization.
Sali, the 1st District representative, said in a recent press release that the House bill would mean “higher taxes and free health care for illegal aliens.”
Second District Rep. Simpson agreed, writing in an op-ed piece, “While SCHIP was originally designed to cover poor children, this new bill radically expands coverage to virtually anybody – including illegal aliens.”
The measure, HR 3162, includes a new state option to allow states to cover legal immigrants during their first five years in the country – something now prohibited for the insurance program. But it also includes a clause entitled, “No federal funding for illegal aliens,” that states, “Nothing in this act allows federal payment for individuals who are not legal residents.”
Still, Simpson said the bill could let undocumented residents into the program by removing certain requirements that recipients prove citizenship or legal residency.
“The cost of providing these benefits to illegal aliens could reach into the hundreds of billions annually,” Simpson wrote in a guest opinion Aug. 1.
Sali’s spokesman, Wayne Hoffman, said Sali is “supportive of SCHIP in general terms – it does serve a purpose.” But, he said, “It’s all about details.”
Sali believes the cigarette tax increase will hit the same poor residents the bill is supposed to help, Hoffman said. Plus, the lengthy House bill “potentially allows illegal or non-citizens of this country to receive health care benefits off the public dole,” he said.
Magrini of the Idaho Community Action Network said the group supports the idea of letting states decide to cover legal immigrants because the current five-year bar on benefits is problematic. “We think five years is too long for pregnant women and children to wait to access health care,” she said.
In late August, Otter, also a Republican, joined health care officials, business people and hospital officials in Salmon, Idaho, at a press conference calling on Congress to reauthorize and adequately fund SCHIP, which now covers about 19,000 Idaho children. A recent state-funded study estimated that 10 percent of Idaho children lack any health insurance.
Otter called the program “an important safety net and one way of investing in our young people that can pay real dividends in wellness and avoided costs down the road.” He added, “SCHIP works, and I’m proud to stand here today with the folks who make it go.”
The program covers children whose families make too much to qualify for Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled, but too little to afford private health insurance. Idaho offers SCHIP only to families who make 185 percent of the federal poverty level or less. All but eight states offer the coverage at a higher income level: 200 percent of the poverty line. The House and Senate bills would let states expand that further.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will cost $25 billion to continue the program at its current funding level for the next five years, but that figure would fall $14 billion short of keeping the program operating with current eligibility rules. That’s because of rising health care costs and rising population.
The Senate bill adds $35 billion in spending beyond the $25 billion base line amount, while the House bill adds $47 billion. An earlier congressional budget resolution called for $50 billion for program expansion, but the president has been calling for a much lower figure.
State Health and Welfare spokesman Tom Shanahan said if the federal funding – which pays for 80 percent of Idaho’s SCHIP costs – expires at the end of September, Idaho still will have about six months worth of funding to spend from its previous SCHIP grants, so Idaho children wouldn’t lose health care right away. “Some states don’t have any left,” he said.