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Panel approves health insurance for more kids

Ricardo Alonso-zaldivar Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – Defying a veto threat from President Bush, a Senate panel on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a compromise to expand health insurance for children of low-income working families by sharply hiking tobacco taxes.

The 17-4 Finance Committee vote underscored the popularity of the program, which insures about 6 million children around the country.

The committee vote left the president isolated, at least for the time being. Six of the 10 Republicans on the panel joined all 11 Democrats in supporting the plan.

Until now, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program has been a federal-state collaboration with broad support from both parties. Backers fear that its future will be jeopardized if it becomes a lightning rod for partisan politics. Legal authority for the program expires Sept. 30, and its renewal is considered the most important vote Congress will take this year on health insurance.

The program now costs the federal government about $5 billion a year, with states contributing additional amounts. The Senate plan would add about $35 billion more in federal money over five years, enough to cover an additional 3.3 million out of as many as 9 million uninsured children.

To pay for that, the plan would boost taxes on tobacco products. The cigarette tax would rise to $1 a pack, from 39 cents now. And taxes on cigars would more than double, to as much as $10 for the most expensive ones.

“It doesn’t make me comfortable to advocate for such a large increase in spending,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “But it’s important to note that (the program) has been tremendously successful. And one of the lessons we’ve learned is that it’s going to cost more to cover additional kids.”

Hatch, one of the authors of the program in the late 1990s, helped negotiate the committee compromise.

But Bush wants to hold the line on spending, adding about $5 billion more to the program over five years. Critics say that is too little, and with the rising cost of health care, it will not be enough to cover all the children currently in the program.

House Democrats – and many in the Senate – want to spend an additional $50 billion or more to cover the majority of uninsured children, but the Republican backers of the Senate plan have said they could not go along with the big funding increase the House is contemplating.

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