Child health insurance, 'hawk-i' at issue in a bitter political debate
President Bush on Wednesday vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have dramatically expanded the Children's Health Insurance program.
Iowa's senators, and Democratic candidates for president, were quick to skewer the president for the action.
The decision was also met with concern in the Storm Lake health care community.
"I was disappointed that we were not able to expand coverage to more children," said Todd Hudspeth, CEO at Buena Vista Regional Medical Center. "It is not a program that applies to a very large percentage of our patients, but for the families that do rely on this, it is a very important piece of legislation."
The program acts as "hawk-i" in Iowa - the Health and Well Kids of Iowa. State officials told the Pilot-Tribune that about 39,000 kids are eligible for coverage under the program.
Nine percent of all U.S. children under age 18 have no health care coverage.
It was only the fourth veto of Bush's presidency, and one that some Republicans fear could carry steep risks for their party in next year's elections. The Senate approved the bill with enough votes to override the veto, but the margin in the House fell short of the required number.
Democrats ripped the Bush veto, as they geared up for a battle to override - at the same time scoring political points against Republicans who oppose the expansion.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., decried Bush's action as a "heartless veto."
"We remain committed to making SCHIP into law - with or without the president's support," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., referring to the full name of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
The White House sought little attention for Bush's action, with the president casting his veto behind closed doors without any fanfare or news coverage. He defended it later Wednesday.
"Poor kids first," Bush said. "Secondly, I believe in private medicine, not the federal government running the health care system."
He said he is "more than willing" to negotiate with lawmakers.
The program is a joint state-federal effort that subsidizes health coverage for 6.6 million people, mostly children, from families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford their own private coverage. In Iowa, the program is known as "hawk-i."
The Democrats who control Congress, with significant support from Republicans, passed the legislation to add $35 billion over five years to allow an additional 4 million children into the program. It would be funded by raising the federal cigarette tax by 61 cents to $1 per pack.
Western Iowa Congressman Steve King backs the veto, saying that he prefers to see the current bill extended long enough to allow for discussion, but said he would not support legislation that would allow healh care coverage for children of illegal immigrants.
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican, supports the expansion of the health insurance program.
He said that Congress will now have to act in a bipartisan way to repackage the bill "to see what we can do to satisfy the president."
With current law sunsetting, something has to be done, or Iowa children who are now covered will have no health care insurance, he said.
Grassley said the bill is being intentionally misrepresented by some Republican opponents, (noting some of the information that has been previously cited by King - such as statements that families making up to $82,000 are being served by the program.)
That is only happening in New York, Grassley said, and it is happening under current law.
"That is not in our bill. The propoganda in this town or intellectual dishonesty can make a good bill look bad," he said, adding that those who are spreading such "misinformation" are "people who know better."
Grassley said that not only should the current program be extended, it needs to be expanded to cover mental health and dental care.
His Iowa counterpart, Democrat Tom Harkin was less diplomatic.
"Once again, President Bush's rhetoric fails to match his actions, and this time it is at the expense of children across the nation. I pledge to work with my colleagues in the Senate to continue fighting for working families by overturning this veto," he told the Pilot-Tribune.
The Children's Health Care Program (hawk- i in Iowa) provides health insurance to nearly 50,000 children, and the legislation Bush vetoed would have covered nearly 11,000 more Iowa children over the next five years, he said.
"Just two short days after the President declared October 1st Child Health Day and recognized the important role CHIP has played in helping poor children stay healthy, he has decided to turn his back on the health of millions of American kids," said Harkin. "The CHIP bill has the overwhelming support of Democrats and Republicans, nurses, doctors, teachers and health insurance companies, for one reason - because it works."
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also gave a statement Wednesday.
"With the stroke of a pen, President Bush has robbed 10,500 uninsured Iowa children of the chance for a healthy start in life and the health coverage they need but can't afford," she said. "These children are invisible to this president, but they aren't invisible to the American people or to the overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress - and they aren't invisible to me. I was proud to help create the Children's Health Insurance Program during the Clinton Administration, which today provides health insurance for six million children."
Clinton said that if elected, she will work to enact her own health care plan, which she said would cover the 44,000 uninsured Iowa children.
Fellow Democrat candidate Barack Obama also blasted the president.
"With one stroke of the pen, the President has denied basic health coverage to 26,400 children in Iowa, putting ideology ahead of compassion and common sense. At a time when we're spending billions of dollars on a war that should never have been authorized and giving billions in tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, today's veto of this bipartisan plan shows a callousness of priorities that is offensive to the ideals we hold as Americans. But George Bush doesn't have the last word, and I will keep fighting for the Republican votes needed to override his veto."
"As the wealthiest nation on earth, there is no reason we shouldn't be able to cover every child," Obama said.
He claimed his plan would lower the cost of healthcare for a family by an average of $2500 per month.
Bush's ongoing concerns over the legislation center around his belief that an expansion of the program would amount to the beginnings of "socialized medicine."
He has in the past said that he is not opposed to an extention of the program, but only if the plan is focused on the most poor families and only involving a much smaller sum, such as $5 billion. Grassley claims that to simply expend the coverage as it exists now would cost $24 billion.