SCHIP on the merits

The Baltimore Sun

From a Maryland perspective, the campaign to override President Bush's veto of legislation expanding access to health insurance for working-class children isn't going well.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid started out by leveling a thinly veiled threat at Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the only Marylander to vote against the measure. But Mr. Bartlett has reveled in the attention, saying he was pleased to be identified as the only one who got it right.

Meanwhile, a Baltimore family that volunteered to help make the case for the State Children's Health Insurance Program by sharing their personal story got slimed by conservative bloggers who questioned, quite rudely, whether they qualified for taxpayer help. They did.

What has been lost in the theatrics is the reality of what's at stake. In Mr. Bartlett's Western Maryland district, for example, between 565 and 665 children receiving health care through SCHIP - for which their families are paying premiums - would be dropped from the program if the veto fight ends in a stalemate. If President Bush prevails, tens of thousands more Maryland children would lose benefits.

No one likes being bullied. But we urge Mr. Bartlett to reconsider the various options for SCHIP on the merits. This is a program designed primarily by Senate Republicans to help the growing ranks of working people who can't get insurance through employers and can't afford the full cost of buying it on their own. It's been a great success.

Mr. Bush says he wants to focus benefits on the poorest in that group before allowing eligibility to creep higher into the middle class. But Maryland has been among the most aggressive states in seeking out children in families earning 200 percent of the poverty level or less, and has enrolled only about 80 percent. Mr. Bush insists on a minimum of 95 percent before children at higher income levels could be served, which threatens nearly 4,000 Maryland children in SCHIP now.

The president also wants to limit new spending on SCHIP to $5 billion over five years - compared with Congress' $35 billion. That would leave Maryland with only half the $162 million a year it needs to continue the program as it is.

Mr. Bartlett is rooting for a compromise that would help less-needy folks buy insurance with refundable tax credits. He says he wants to maintain their control over health care choices. But too often, one financial setback leaves families with no control and no choices. For them, SCHIP is a vital safety net.

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