WASHINGTON – The House is scheduled to vote Thursday in an attempt to override President Bush’s veto of legislation expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, but Maine’s Democratic House members are doubtful the effort will succeed.
The program, known as SCHIP, was scheduled to lose its funding on Sept. 30, but after Bush vetoed the renewal legislation, Congress extended its funding until Nov. 16.
“The president vetoed a bipartisan compromise, and that’s his position, and the majority of the Senate and the House believe otherwise,” Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for the House leadership, said in an interview Wednesday. “There has been a constant outpouring of support for the vote override, so we’ll see what happens.”
To override the veto, two-thirds of the House members who are present will have to vote to pass the SCHIP bill. If all sitting members are present, then 289 votes would be needed to override the president.
On Sept. 25, when the House last voted on the bill, it passed 265-159.
Maine’s two Democratic House members voted for the bill originally and plan on voting to override the veto.
U.S. Rep. Tom Allen of the 1st District said he doesn’t know whether there will be enough votes to override or what the Democratic plan will be if the veto holds.
“Providing health care coverage to low-income kids should be a no-brainer, but apparently it’s not for the president and most of the Republicans in the House,” Allen said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “My view is you keep trying until the votes are counted and then go from there.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of the 2nd District said there was no way the House could muster the votes needed for the override.
“I will vote to override the president’s veto, and I know we will come up short and we’ll have to go back to the drawing board,” Michaud said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t make sense to give the president the same bill if he’s going to continue to veto it. Health care is extremely important, and it will save money in the long run if you can cover children at the earlier stages.”
The federal-state program is intended to provide health insurance for children whose parents earn too much for Medicaid eligibility but not enough to afford private insurance.
Mike Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday during a telephone press conference that the president has been clear about his support for the reauthorization of SCHIP.
“We agree with Congress that the program is important and needs to be reauthorized,” Leavitt said. “We agree that there needs to be enough money to satisfy the needs for those who are in categories of need.”
Leavitt said he believed the veto will be sustained. At that point, he said, his department intends “to make immediate contact with the leaders of both parties and the relevant committees to engage in [some] discussions.”
Health care has increasingly become a financial burden on Americans, as premiums continue to increase and fewer employers offer full coverage to their employees and their families.
Maine ranks third in the country in money spent annually on health care per person. Maine residents spend $6,540 annually on health care, while the national average is $5,283, according to a national report released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The SCHIP bill would extend the program for five years and increase its funding by $35 billion over that period. In total, the program would cost the federal government $12 billion a year on average and be paid for by a federal excise tax increase of 61 cents on tobacco products.
Bush’s budget proposed a $5 billion increase over five years.
Kirsten Figueroa, deputy commissioner of finance at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said she was optimistic that the White House and Congress would be able to find common ground on the issue.
“This is an interesting political strategy, but we’re assuming that the federal government will come through on this one,” Figueroa said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Figueroa said the federal funding of SCHIP was essential for keeping Maine’s low-income children insured because for about every 25 cents that Maine pays into the system, the state is able to draw on about 75 cents from the federal government for the SCHIP program.
Maine has more than 14,000 children enrolled in the SCHIP program, according to Figueroa.
David Clough, the Maine state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said an increasing number of small businesses were failing to offer family coverage plans to their employees based on rising health care costs.
“In the small-business sector, they have, over the last several years, dropped off coverage, and that is primarily because of cost,” Clough said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “Maine’s costs in pure premium dollars are among the highest in the country for small-business owners, and as a percentage of payroll the costs are significantly high.”
Small-group insurance rates have increased more than 100 percent since 2001, according to the Maine Bureau of Insurance.
The majority of Maine’s employers are small-business owners. As fewer and fewer employers offer family health care coverage, an increasing number of children of working parents are left without insurance.