WASHINGTON -- Advocates are rolling out slick marketing campaigns and a stream of media events to bolster a children's insurance program that the Bush administration wants to curtail, and one group has enlisted Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley in the push for more federal aid.
O'Malley, a Democrat, is to speak here today when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation introduces a $3 million advertising campaign designed to press Congress to renew and increase spending for a popular health insurance program run by states with an assist from federal matching funds. Joining him will be Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, a Republican whose state has halted enrollment in the program because of a cash crunch.
"The ranks of the uninsured have been growing in our state, and will likely continue to grow," O'Malley said yesterday, adding that he is participating in the foundation's promotion "to highlight the issue and stand with my fellow governors in making this a bipartisan and broad-based national effort."
The State Children's Health Insurance Program is expected to be renewed, but a fight over how generous to make the benefits is turning into one of the year's top domestic issues. More than 6 million children a year receive care through the program.
President Bush has proposed cutting the rate of growth in the program as part of a five-year plan to balance the federal budget. But some Republicans say the president might not mind if Congress puts more money in - and takes the heat.
"The administration has been beaten up tremendously over the deficit," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who co-sponsored the 1997 bill that created the children's health plan.
The administration knows that pressure is building to add money to the program, Hatch said, and "I don't think the president is going to feel too badly if Congress increases spending."
Proponents see the program as a possible first step toward universal health coverage. Democratic lawmakers want the federal government to increase spending on it and warn that the administration's proposal would add at least 1 million children to the ranks of the nation's uninsured.
White House officials say some states have extended benefits to adults and children in higher-earning families that don't need the help. They say Bush's proposal would restore the program to its original intent: helping children of the working poor who can't afford private insurance but don't qualify for Medicaid, the government's health plan for the poor and disabled.
The nation's governors have made renewing the children's health program a top priority. Maryland is one of 14 states facing funding shortfalls in the program this year, and 11,000 children in the state could be removed from it if Congress goes along with Bush's budget plan.
The foundation's ad features soft-focus images of a happy toddler chasing bubbles as a woman says: "While they still notice acorns and bugs, and while they still think we can protect them from anything, let's ensure every child gets the care they need."
Airing in several states and the Washington area, the ads are "targeted to opinion leaders and our nation's leaders," said Elaine Arkin, head of the foundation's Cover the Uninsured Campaign.
The foundation is one of several groups pushing for more insurance money. Hatch spoke yesterday at a rally organized by the Children's Health Fund, Families USA and the Campaign for Children's Health Care.
"This is the first real tangible opportunity in many years to get more people covered," she said. "There's a lot of rallying about this because it is such an opportunity."
Under the program, state money is matched 2-to-1 with federal funds, and states have flexibility in determining who qualifies. While the plan was aimed at children in families earning twice the federal poverty rate - about $41,000 for a family of four - some states cover wealthier families.
O'Malley would extend the benefits to Maryland families earning $80,000 a year - four times the poverty rate - if they pay a premium to take part. Pennsylvania and other states are moving in a similar direction.
The White House and others say extending benefits to wealthier families would make private insurance less available. The administration proposes to provide the most federal support for children in families with incomes up to twice the poverty level, with reduced assistance to states that enroll families that earn more.
"We feel strongly that this is a good way to refocus the program on what it was originally intended to do," said Sean M. Kevelighan, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.
Texas Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton, sponsor of a measure that would make Bush's plan the law, said in a statement: "If the problems are not fixed, it seems likely that SCHIP will become another runaway welfare program where the people who benefit most are the ones who need it least, bureaucrats and politicians."