February 4, 2009
(AP) - The House overwhelmingly approved a bill extending health coverage to 4 million uninsured children, giving President Barack Obama a much-needed win on health care and taking a first step toward his promise of universal coverage.
The Democratic-controlled House passed the bill 290-135 on Wednesday, with 40 Republicans backing it. Obama plans to sign it into law later in the day.
The bill calls for spending an additional $32.8 billion on the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Lawmakers generated that revenue through a much higher federal tobacco tax.
"Unemployment keeps rising and people are going from worried to
scared," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said during House debate on
the legislation. "At such a time, it is our most basic economic
and moral responsibility to provide health care to the most
vulnerable among us."
Republicans criticized the cost of the legislation. They also said it will mean an estimated 2.4 million children who otherwise would have access to private insurance will join the State Children's Health Insurance Program instead.
"The Democrats continue to push their government-run health care agenda - universal coverage as they call it," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas.
An estimated 7 million children are now enrolled in SCHIP.
To cover the increase in spending, the bill would boost the federal excise tax on a pack of cigarettes by 62 cents, to $1.01 a pack.
The bill's passages has long been a top priority of Democratic lawmakers. In late 2007, former President George W. Bush twice vetoed similar bills. The Senate passed the same bill last week.
Obama made it a top priority in his first 100 days and one step in his push for universal coverage by the end of his first term.
House passage came one day after Obama's choice for health secretary, Tom Daschle, withdrew his nomination, citing the
distraction of his delinquent tax payments.
SCHIP was created more than a decade ago to help children in
families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low
to afford private coverage.
Federal money for the program was set to expire March 31, barring action by Congress.
Republicans said that they supported SCHIP and providing additional money for the program. However, they argued that Democrats were taking the program beyond its original intent and encouraging states to cover middle-class families who otherwise could get private insurance.
"This debate is about, do we want a children's health insurance
program that covers every child in America with state and federal
dollars regardless of their ability to pay?" said Rep. Joe Barton,
R-Texas. "Do we want to freeze out the private sector for health
Opponents of the bill also complained that the tobacco tax increase hits the poor the hardest, because they are more likely to smoke than wealthier people. Many also took exception to expanding the program and Medicaid to children of newly arrived legal immigrants.
But supporters said that ensuring children had access to
adequate health care was a matter of priorities. Rep. Frank
Pallone, D-N.J., said an estimated 4 million people have lost
employer-sponsored insurance in the past year.
"Do they keep their families' health insurance or do they put
food on the table at night? During this economic recession, these
kinds of decisions are unfortunately becoming more common,"