Bush's SCHIP Veto Could Hurt Republicans

Personal Health

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's veto Wednesday of a children's insurance measure could hurt many poor Hispanics and further erode Latino support for the GOP, political experts and liberal activists said.

The impact could be less than expected, however, because some Latino groups did not embrace the measure since it would have barred thousands of legal immigrant children from participating in the insurance program.

The legislation would have expanded the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, by $35 billion over five years. The program serves thousands of Latino children who lack private health insurance.

Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Bush's veto is enormously unpopular with almost every group in the country, including Hispanics.

"The veto, especially if sustained in the House by Republicans, is bound to further weaken Republican support among Latinos," he said.

John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said that Democrats will surely run Spanish language ads on the issue during the 2008 election cycle.

"Republicans have a reasonable policy argument against the measure, but it sounds complex and abstract," Pitney said. "The Democratic argument is simple and strong: 'We want to help kids but Bush and his friends do not.'"

In addition, Pitney said that Republicans will have to explain why they are suddenly showing fiscal restraint after spending money "like drunken sailors."

"Democrats will ask why the GOP is suddenly sobering up when facing a program that helps poor Hispanic kids," he said.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made that point, saying that the money proposed for SCHIP under the legislation "is the equivalent of what the President spends in less than four months in Iraq."

Reid also said that the veto would especially hurt Hispanic children. ?

The SCHIP program currently costs $25 billion and provides health care to more than 6 million children in families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid but not high enough to pay for private coverage. The additional money would enable states to provide health coverage to another 3.8 million children.

At least one third of such new enrollees would be Latino children because many currently eligible Hispanics are not enrolled, said Edwin Park, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington.

In total, about 40 percent of Hispanic children get their insurance through the SCHIP program or Medicaid, according to Park.

Without a significant increase in funding, the program will not be able to sustain itself, he said.

"Every day there's going to be more uninsured kids in this country and because Latino children, in particular, are much more likely to be uninsured, they will be disproportionately affected," Park said.

President Bush contends that expanding the program's eligibility limits would encourage middle-class families to drop their private insurance and cover their children under the taxpayer-supported plan. The White House has also said that the measure "goes too far toward federalizing health care."

In a memo, the White House said that the bill passed by Congress would enable SCHIP to cover children in some households with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or $83,000 per year.?

The White House also said the president supports a more modest 20 percent increase in the program of $5 billion over five years.

Supporters of the legislation have disputed the White House numbers.

The Urban Institute, a non-partisan think tank, estimated that 70 percent of children who would gain coverage are in families earning less than $40,000.

Despite the potential benefit for many Latino children, some Hispanic groups don't like the SCHIP bill.

They are upset that congressional negotiators stripped a provision that would have lifted a ban on legal immigrant children who have been in the United States less than five years from participating in the SCHIP program.

Jennifer Ngandu, a senior health policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group, said the move effectively denied health care to about 400,000 Latino children who are in the United States legally.

"While this bill would have extended coverage to Latino children, Congress cannot say with conviction that they removed all the barriers for Latino children, as they chose to leave a significant part of the population behind," she said.

Peter Zamora, regional counsel at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), said that the SCHIP bill presented a "very tough call" for Latino groups.

MALDEF has not formally opposed it but is upset at the exclusion of legal immigrant children, he said.

"It doesn't go far enough," he said, of the bill.

But other Hispanic groups praised the legislation, despite their concerns about the dropped provision, including the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, a health advocacy group.

The legislation would have insured more than 1 million Latino children, the group said.

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