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Supporters of SCHIP Say Veto Override is Out of Reach

Supporters of a bill to expand a popular children's health insurance program concede they won't have enough votes to override a presidential veto. President Bush now says he's willing to work somethin

Supporters of SCHIP Say Veto Override is Out of Reach

Supporters of a bill to expand a popular children's health insurance program concede they won't have enough votes to override a presidential veto. President Bush now says he's willing to work something out to keep the S-CHIP program afloat. But if more funding isn't approved soon, many poor children in California could lose their health coverage. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has more.

About half of the patients at La Maestra Family Clinic in City Heights are children. And most of them are enrolled in California's version of the SCHIP program, known as Healthy Families .

On a weekday afternoon at La Maestra, one child is getting a booster shot. Another is being treated for asthma. Alejandra Hernandez is the clinic coordinator. She knows how important Healthy Families is to this community. After all, her three kids are covered by the program.

Hernandez: They get screenings for well-child checkups, you know, physicals every year. They get the vaccinations that they need, and then they get referrals also to see the specialties. Everything that they need, it's covered under the program.

For all that, Hernandez pays $18 a month, plus a co-payment each time her kids go to the doctor. In contrast, Hernandez and her husband get health insurance through her employer. They pay around $500 a month for the benefit. Hernandez says there's no way they could afford to add the kids to her plan.  

Hernandez: If I want to have my kids under this insurance, that would be like $900 a month. So even though we're both working with our salaries, it's not enough to cover for the health insurance, and to provide for the kids for all the needs that they have.

Healthy Families is designed for working parents like Alejandra and her husband. They make around $55,000 a year. That's too much to qualify for Medi-Cal, but not enough to afford private coverage for their kids. Congress recently approved a bill designed to expand the SCHIP program to more working families nationwide. The $60 billion measure got strong bi-partisan support. But President Bush vetoed it. He said the bill would extend the program to high-income families. And the president said that would be a step towards what he calls socialized medicine. San Diego Congressman Brian Bilbray agrees.

Bilbray: I've seen what socialized medicine does. And frankly, I don't want my grandchildren to have it.

Bilbray says he was one of the original supporters of SCHIP when Congress approved it ten years ago. The Republican argues backers of the expansion bill say they want to help children...but they have an ulterior motive. 

Bilbray: The game plan is, to have universal coverage, which means that you force into a single payer, and that basically healthcare becomes a government-mandated service, and there are people that want that.

Lesley Cummings directs California's Healthy Families Program. She says it has nothing to do with socialized medicine.

Cummings: This program is for people who don't have employer-sponsored coverage for their children. And if you don't have employer-sponsored coverage for your children, the chances that you're going to be able to afford coverage are low, especially if you're at the income levels of the people that we serve. And that's just the facts.

Healthy Families insures 830,000 children. It's the largest SCHIP program in the country. Cummings says California needs the money in the vetoed bill just to maintain current enrollment levels and to enroll all eligible children. She says if Congress and the president can't agree on something soon.

Cummings: We would have no money for the program starting July 1st of this coming year. And when I say no money, I mean no money.

Supporters of the expansion bill concede they'll probably fail to override the president's veto. Alejandra Hernandez just can't believe it.

Hernandez: Obviously, whoever is voting against this is because they don't need the insurance. That's what they're voting against, you know.

In the meantime, SCHIP is funded only through mid-November. Lesley Cummings has advised the Healthy Families Board to make contingency plans. These include putting children on a waiting list, and dropping kids from the program.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.