Legislation reauthorizing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program – or SCHIP – has been vetoed once by President Bush because, in his view, the bill was too costly and would have covered more than needy American children.  Congressional negotiators are now said to be nearing an agreement on a version of SCHIP that would either be signed by the President or would withstand a presidential veto.

In an interview with the Missourinet, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt expressed hope that President Bush would be sent a bill that he will sign.  And, he raised concerns that Congress had proposed turning SCHIP into something that would do much more than cover low-income children.

"The Democrats who control the Congress," says Leavitt,  "Have chosen to propose, at the time of its reauthorization, that we turn this program into something other than a program that cares for low-income children.  They have proposed, for example, that we include adults on the Children’s Health Insurance Program.  They proposed that we include children who are in families that make $60-$70-$80,000 a year."

"We’re fighting," continued Leavitt, "To reauthorize the program, but to do it in a way that maintains its focus on low-income children first."

Concerns have been raised that children of illegal aliens would be eligible for benefits under the version of the SCHIP bill initially sent to the President.  Leavitt says that while illegals are not eligible, the bill would open a back door to illegals by which non-citizens could enroll if they qualify for subsidized school lunch or Head Start.  Neither of these programs has citizenship requirements.

Another concern of the SCHIP bill sent to the White House could, in effect, see Missouri taxpayers earning $40,000 a year paying for the health care needs of the children of parents in New York State or New Jersey earning $75,000 or $80,000 a year.  Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has commented on this situation, blaming the Bush Administration for creating exemptions that allow states like New York and New Jersey to raise the income levels under which families would qualify for SCHIP benefits.

Leavitt says there were experiments very early in the Administration aimed at including more needy children.  But he insists the raising of the income levels had nothing to with exemptions from the Bush Administration.

As for when this issue might be settled and a reauthorized SCHIP bill is in place, Leavitt can’t say, but he reassures low-income Missourians their children are still covered.  "Everyone is committed to make certain that there’s no lapse in this coverage," says Leavitt.  "If they’re eligible now they’ll be eligible in the future."

Leavitt says the President is awaiting a bill that will cover poor children and will not use SCHIP as a vehicle to encourage people to cancel their private insurance to pick up government insurance. 

Download/Listen: Steve Walsh interviews HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt (6:00 MP3)