WASHINGTON -- President Bush indicated yesterday that he would be willing to accept a larger increase for a children's health insurance program than the one he has proposed, but he defended his veto of the expansion of coverage approved by Congress.
Bush's veto Wednesday set off an ideological battle about who holds responsibility for extending health care benefits to uninsured children: the government or the private sector.
The congressional bill would spend $60 billion over five years to expand health coverage for children of the working poor and middle class, and it would pay for it with higher tobacco taxes. Bush has offered $30 billion, a 20 percent increase over current levels but not enough to maintain the existing enrollment in the State Children's Health Insurance Program, budget analysts say.
The program, managed by states within federal guidelines, serves about 6 million children. An estimated 9 million children remain uninsured in the U.S., and the number has been rising as employers cut back coverage.
Bush's veto led one Democratic lawmaker to call the president "Ebenezer Scrooge" last week, while a Republican pollster noted that "it will take some superb communications to persuade voters that the White House really is on the side of children's health."
During his weekly radio address yesterday, Bush called for a compromise but offered no specifics.
"If putting poor children first takes a little more than the 20 percent increase I have proposed in my budget for SCHIP, I am willing to work with leaders in Congress to find the additional money," he said.
Bush had earlier hinted that he was open to a compromise but still has not made clear what he is willing to accept. He continued to describe the measure that he vetoed as "deeply flawed," contending that the plan was "an incremental step toward their goal of government-run health care for every American," which he believes is "the wrong direction for our country."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and the House majority leader, pointed out that most children enrolled in SCHIP receive coverage through private insurers who hold state contracts, even though the government subsidizes the benefits.
"The truth is, America's largest private insurance lobbying group supports this bill - as do America's doctors, nurses, children's advocates and, most importantly 72 percent of Americans," Hoyer said in the Democrats' response to Bush's address.
The current law, which remains in effect while the debate over reauthorization continues, covers children in families earning up to $40,000 a year, about twice the federal poverty level.
Judy Pasternak writes for the Los Angeles Times.