WE MUST WORK TOGETHER TO PUT CHILDREN FIRST
Last week the House of Representatives voted to sustain the President's veto of H.R. 976, the Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act. This flawed legislation should have reauthorized the vital State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) by ensuring that all eligible low-income children are enrolled in the program. Instead this legislation provides health coverage for more adults, families earning upwards of $80,000 per year and illegal immigrants at the expense of our most vulnerable children.
When Congress first created SCHIP there was no question that this new program was intended to help low-income, uninsured children. I strongly supported this program when it was initially created in 1997 and I strongly support continuing SCHIP today. Unfortunately, H.R. 976 does not stay true to the original principles of the program.
Instead, this legislation, which takes the first steps toward pushing all Americans into government-run health care, expands the original SCHIP in numerous ways, including expansions in some states that could result in coverage of children whose families have an annual income up to $83,000. It is estimated that over 2 million children currently covered by private health insurance plans would be taken off these plans and put on government assistance.
To pay for these expansions, H.R. 976 increases the cigarette tax by 61 cents to $1 per pack. This tax increase falls disproportionately on low-income individuals in order to pay for the expansion of SCHIP, which is designed to assist these same low-income families. This revenue source is constantly declining and therefore will not adequately fund the program. According to a recent study, to produce the revenues that Congress needs to fund SCHIP expansion through such a tax would require 22.4 million new smokers by 2017. This is hardly a desirable result.
H.R. 976 also weakens the requirements preventing illegal aliens from accessing government benefits. It is estimated that this provision will cost the federal government and the states an additional $6.5 billion. This is hard earned taxpayer dollars being spent on individuals who are illegally in the country and should not be qualified to receive these benefits.
Perhaps most alarmingly, H.R. 976 provides for a significant expansion of SCHIP without guaranteeing that our most vulnerable children have health insurance. A recent Gallup Poll indicated a majority of Americans agree that the primary goal in reauthorizing SCHIP should be providing health insurance to low-income children. Right now there are more than 500,000 low-income children eligible for the program but not covered, including tens of thousands here in Virginia. Meanwhile, some 700,000 adults currently receive SCHIP benefits, including 87 percent of all enrollees in Minnesota and 66 percent of the beneficiaries in Wisconsin.
If we allowed this vetoed SCHIP legislation to pass, the intent of the original SCHIP program, which is to provide health insurance to children from low-income families who are unable to afford private coverage, would be lost. Republicans and Democrats have a historic opportunity to work together to ensure that SCHIP covers more low-income American children without using budget gimmicks that put the program in financial jeopardy and without forcing children off of private health insurance, but most importantly any reauthorization of SCHIP must put low-income children first.