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VOL. 122 | NO. 197 | Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sunken SCHIP?

Vote to resurrect child health care bill underscored by partisan wrangling

By Andy Meek

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SCHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK: Gov. Phil Bredesen talks to Journi Prewitt, 7, and others at a recent stop in Memphis to promote the state's CoverKids health care program, which is Tennessee's version of SCHIP. -- Photo Courtesy Of The State Of Tennessee

For the past two weeks, battle lines have taken shape in Congress over what might at first seem like an unlikely topic: a piece of legislation dealing with a federally funded children's health insurance program.

After tinkering with the scope and eligibility requirements of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), lawmakers earlier this month saw a bipartisan bill they passed - which renewed the program before it was due to expire - rebuffed by a presidential veto. That veto is headed for a congressional showdown Thursday.

Which is why, for the past two weeks, Tennessee's local, state and national political leaders have been making their voices heard, whichever side of the battle line they stand on.

A range of opinions

A few examples include Bob Corker, one of Tennessee's two Republican senators, who was quoted in The Wall Street Journal Friday supporting the plan. Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, whose district includes parts of Memphis, appeared the same day on CNBC to discuss her opposition to SCHIP.

"When you look at this bill, the things that people do not like about it, my goodness - you're talking about taxing tobacco in order to provide this health care," Blackburn said, referring to the increases in cigarette and cigar taxes that were to fund the $35 billion SCHIP expansion.

Tenn. Gov. Phil Bredesen and a contingent of other top Democratic leaders in the state recently urged Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee to support an override of the veto.

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has been in constant - almost daily - contact with the region's representatives in the nation's capital, he said.

"The real fight to me - the way I see it as an analyst - the real fight is the one that has not been brought out into the open. And it's that American people of different political persuasions disagree about the role of government in health care."

- Dr. Cyril Chang
Professor of economics at the University of Memphis

And at a recent Fred Thompson campaign event in Webster County, Iowa, the former Tennessee U.S. senator and University of Memphis graduate now running for president called the new SCHIP plan a move toward government-run health care for all.

"Both Congress and the president wish to continue this program - nobody wants to roll back this program and deny children insurance," said Dr. Cyril Chang, a professor of economics at the University of Memphis. "That's agreed upon, irrespective of what the talk shows say."

What it's really about

Yet here's the rub: A staffer for one of Tennessee's two Republican U.S. senators said, at its core, the back-and-forth over SCHIP actually represents a power struggle between the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress over who now controls the national agenda.

That, Chang said, means tomorrow's vote in the House of Representatives to override the presidential veto is really a proxy fight over a larger issue. Democrats are trying to paint Republicans into a corner over a perceived insensitivity to the needs of children.

Republicans are arguing that a vote to expand the health care program is tantamount to funding another costly entitlement the nation can ill afford.

"The real fight to me - the way I see it as an analyst - the real fight is the one that has not been brought out into the open," Chang said. "And it's that American people of different political persuasions disagree about the role of government in health care.

"The issue with SCHIP is how much more money to spend and how many more kids to cover. And do you mandate that you cover poor kids first before you cover others? One argument is that there are poor kids out there who are hard to find. Do you exhaust all avenues to find them before you cover others who need it?"

Clashing ideologies

The House of Representatives will vote Thursday in an attempt to override the presidential veto. The Senate passed its version of the SCHIP bill with a veto-proof majority - and the 'yes' votes of both Republican senators from Tennessee, Corker and Lamar Alexander.

Whatever happens, the debate's eventual resolution carries major ramifications for Shelby County.

Currently in limbo are such elements of the SCHIP expansion as an amendment that would provide funding for the Regional Medical Center at Memphis.

"It also provides an opportunity to direct funding toward pregnant mothers," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis. "We have a tremendous problem in Memphis with infant mortality and premature births, and this funding for pregnant women could be a weapon against that problem."

The health care program in Tennessee that would be funded by SCHIP is CoverKids, the benefits of which include health coverage for children younger than 19 whose families are below an income threshold of about $50,000 a year for a family of four.

Through the end of September, 631 people in Shelby County were enrolled in CoverKids, according to state figures. That's up from a little more than 400 in August.

The statewide total as of Monday is roughly 13,000.

"Any time we can broaden the blanket of health care coverage for children, we should," Wharton said. "And keep in mind, the (SCHIP) bill doesn't dictate that the state of Tennessee expand its coverage to some of the higher income limits elsewhere. That's to be handled state by state.

"But to the degree that it gives the states latitude to include more, I welcome that."

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