Uncertainty continues when it comes to children's insurance

With a Republican in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress, Washington has seen its share of gridlock in 2007, from last summer's stalemate over illegal immigration this fall's battles over appropriations bills.

It's no surprise that the two sides don't see eye to eye on immigration or the war in Iraq, such polarizing issues that they have sparked dissension within each party's ranks.

But they're even fighting over children, a sacrosanct group that no politician can afford to be seen as opposing.

Specifically, Republicans and Democrats can't get together on legislation reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program, parent to Georgia's popular PeachCare for Kids.

The latest deadline for action came and went last week, as lawmakers unable to reach a compromise passed a resolution continuing SCHIP funding through Dec. 14.

If President Bush and congressional leaders still can't agree by then, the issue will be pushed into next year.

SCHIP was launched a decade ago to offer coverage to children in families earning too much income to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private health insurance.

No one argues with that concept. But the president and his GOP congressional allies have dug in their heels to stop Democrats from expanding the program by $35 billion during the next five years from the current $25 billion.

The increase would be financed by hiking the federal tax on tobacco products.

Bush already has vetoed an earlier version of the bill, and congressional Democrats haven't been able to muster the two-thirds majorities needed to override the president.

"Democrats in Congress want to insure 10 million poor children, and the president wants to stick with the current figure of 6 million," said freshman U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, who has made SCHIP one of the main priorities of his first year in Washington." It's a fundamental disagreement."

Republicans argue that the size of the expansion Democrats are proposing would take the program beyond covering poor children and create an entitlement for kids in middle-class families whose parents have other options.

A favorite GOP talking point has been a report issued last spring by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The CBO found that for every 100 children who enroll in SCHIP, 25 to 50 families drop private insurance coverage for their kids.

"That's going to cause everybody else's premiums to go up," said U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Grantville.

But SCHIP's supporters say the much smaller funding increase Republicans are willing to support would offer working families a false choice.

Mindy Binderman, advocacy director of Voices for Georgia's Children, said many of the parents whose kids would be served by an expanded SCHIP either are in jobs that don't offer health insurance or simply can't afford to buy private coverage.

"Private insurance is neither affordable nor available," she said.

Binderman also argued that families at the higher end of income eligibility for SCHIP have to pay part of the tab, so the whole bill doesn't go to taxpayers.

"Families do pay a premium," she said. "This isn't free insurance."

Beyond the policy dispute over how many kids should be brought into SCHIP lies politics, with the two sides accusing each other of trying to score points at children's expense.

Republicans say Democrats would rather see the reauthorization legislation remain unresolved so they can blame the GOP for the bill's failure during next year's campaigns.

"The Democrats have no shame about who they exploit for politics," Westmoreland said. "They're exploiting children."

But Johnson said Bush doesn't want to come to the table because he's more interested in playing up to Republican corporate donors than helping kids.

"The president's motives are to protect the insurance industry and the tobacco industry," Johnson said. "Democrats want to protect children whose parents are too poor to afford health insurance for their children."

With that level of vitriol surrounding the debate, it's little wonder that the two sides have hit a logjam.

That's bad news for the families of more than 280,000 Georgia children enrolled in PeachCare.

After enduring a year of funding uncertainty that saw the state freeze enrollment in the program for several months and later cap the number of enrollees, PeachCare families could enter 2008 without a long-term fix for SCHIP.

Unless and until Republicans and Democrats come up with a reauthorization measure both sides can live with, PeachCare kids and their parents will only be protected until the next deadline.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.