Before adjourning for the holidays, Congress last week passed legislation to maintain the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and delay scheduled cuts to payments for physicians in the Medicare and Medicaid programs while promising to do more when they return to Washington in the New Year.
The SCHIP bill, S. 2499, was passed by the House Dec. 19 under expedited procedures as Congress raced to complete work and head home.
The stopgap legislation, which will maintain the Medicaid programs as is for 6 months and SCHIP through March of 2009, was passed by the Senate by a voice vote on Dec. 18 and sent to the House for final action as members of both bodies lamented that more had not been accomplished and sought to assign blame for the holdup.
“While I am glad to be able to continue health coverage for millions of children in CHIP today, this status-quo extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is not what I wanted for America’s working families,” said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.
“CHIP works to get low-income, uninsured American children the doctors’ visits and medicines they need to stay healthy,” Baucus said. “Congress and the President had numerous opportunities this year to do right by millions more low-income, uninsured American children who desperately need the health care and coverage CHIP can provide.”
But it is clear, Baucus added, “that the President’s vetoes of CHIP legislation will force 4 million kids in need to continue to live without health care–for now.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking minority member of the Finance Committee, also lamented that more was not done by Congress. “The bill we considered today addressed the things Congress needed to do before going home for the holidays,” he said, adding that “I know many of my colleagues wanted to do more.”
However, while acknowledging that Republicans were unable to come to agreement on some of the issues among themselves, he also placed some of the blame on the shoulders of the Democratic majority.
“We have a Democratic Congress that has to work with a slim majority in the Senate and a Republican President,” he said. “At times this year, I’m not sure my colleagues on the other side of the aisle fully grasped the consequences of that reality. It certainly shows when you consider what we could have done this year and what was ultimately accomplished. I sincerely hope we do a better job of being bipartisan albeit in a political year.”
In the House, Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, was more blunt, arguing that the bills being passed to keep the SCHIP and Medicare programs going for now were far short of what the House had hoped to accomplish.
In July, he said, the House passed legislation that would have “preserved and improved” both the Medicare and SCHIP programs.
“This bill doesn’t even come close,” he said in reference to the stop-gap legislation.
“This bill was designed by the Republicans to support their rich friends, the pharmaceutical industry, the for-profit insurance industry and to destroy Medicare as millions of American seniors have known it, to harm children, and to cast blame at illegal immigrants and working single parents,” he added. “It shows the Republicans in their truest form, help the rich at the expense of the poor and deny government services to everyone and only help the profit industries who pay them so generously through their campaign contributions which will be useless because the public will realize that we don’t need them anymore.”
Although the bill temporarily stops the 10% cut in physician payments in the Medicare program that was supposed to pay for expansions to the SCHIP program, Stark said the overall bill failed to address many of the issues the earlier House legislation sought to resolve.
“It flat out fails to address real improvements needed for Medicare beneficiaries,” he said. “It lacks increased protections for low-income beneficiaries. It lacks Medicare mental health parity. It lacks overdue improvements in preventive benefits and non-payment related reforms to the HMO program. It lacks limits on physician hospital ownership and self-referral, and the list goes on.”
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the Ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce committee, echoed Sen. Grassley’s sentiments regarding the majority.
“Republicans have been willing to work with Democrats on this since the day after the 2006 election,” he said. “Now maybe we can. If the House extends SCHIP, the next logical move is to convene a committee hearing and begin an honest, bipartisan exploration of how to improve children’s health insurance.”
Republicans opposed many of the expansions to the SCHIP program included in the House-approved legislation, which they felt would have opened the program to illegal immigrants and families capable of paying for coverage on their own.
“I believe SCHIP is for children, not adults. I believe SCHIP is not for illegal aliens, and I believe SCHIP is not for rich people,” Barton said. “That’s where the president is and that’s where House Republicans are, and I think that’s where a majority of the American people are. There’s no reason that Republicans and Democrats can’t sit down and calmly build a program that helps American children.”