WASHINGTON - On a rare warm late winter's day, onlookers were treated yesterday to a more frequent sight in these lame-duck times: Democrats and Republicans rallying together to support a domestic issue in opposition to the White House.
The issue is the future of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP, which provides health insurance to six million U.S. children.
At spending levels proposed in President Bush's budget to continue the federal commitment to the program, children's health advocates say that more than a million children will lose SCHIP coverage over the next four years.
These advocates are proposing an "enhanced reauthorization" of the legislation, with higher funding levels to cover the nearly nine million children estimated to be uninsured.
"Justice cannot abide nine million children with no health insurance," Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said at the rally near the Capitol. "This is my top priority, as far as domestic issues, and I believe it's the top priority of Democratic senators as well."
Casey's commitment to the program goes beyond mere policy endorsement. As Pennsylvania governor, his father was the driving force behind passage of the first state program in 1992, which later became the model for the federal SCHIP.
About 1.1 million, or one in three, Pennsylvania children are enrolled in Medicaid or SCHIP. Approximately 68 cents of every dollar spent on SCHIP in Pennsylvania comes from the federal government.
According to a September 2006 report by the advocacy group Families USA, more than 280,000 children in the commonwealth are uninsured. An estimated 264,000 children are uninsured in New Jersey.
President Bush's proposed budget calls for about $5 billion on top of the baseline of $25 billion in additional federal funds over the next five years. An analysis by the Children's Health Fund, an advocacy group in New York City, suggests that a minimum of $13 billion on top of the baseline is needed to maintain the current enrollees in the program.
"Reauthorization by itself is not enough," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund.
An additional $60 billion over five years on top of the baseline would be needed to cover the nine million uninsured children.
"Does the administration want 1.4 million children - at least - between now and 2012 to lose their insurance coverage?" Casey told a small crowd of supporters. Administration officials say that the states receive a fixed amount of federal money each year, and that individual children do not have a legal entitlement to benefits. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt said that states could avoid shortfalls in funding by managing their programs better.
Casey was joined at the rally by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who said: "The need for CHIP today is greater than ever. Now is the time for Congress to act and ensure that all of America's children are provided with the care they are entitled to receive."
The senators and Reps. Frank Pallone (D., N.J.) and Jim Ramstad (R., Minn.) spoke outside the Russell Senate Office Building in front of a blue mobile medical unit that was en route to New Orleans to aid children suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
Casey noted that the SCHIP program was fully supported by his father's two Republican successors in Harrisburg, Govs. Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker.
"Gov. Rendell wants to move in the opposite direction of the president," Casey said.
Indeed, at a recent session at the White House, some Democratic and Republican governors told Bush that they regarded funding for children's health insurance as vital as funding for the Iraq War.
Rendell said after that meeting that Bush's budget request was "clearly insufficient" to continue coverage for the six million enrollees.
As Rendell framed the issue: "Should we be giving tax cuts to billionaires and millionaires or should we be giving health care to children?"