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Insuring America's Children

By United States Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat from New Mexico  Posted by Stephen Fox (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Insuring America's Children

By Senator Jeff Bingaman

Nearly 50 million Americans lack health insurance. Obviously that doesn’t mean they don’t get sick. But it does mean when they are sick enough to seek care in an emergency room, they cannot afford to pay all the bills, and the burden of debt often stays with them for years. What hospitals and providers do not recover is passed on to the rest of us in the form of increased costs for services and increases in our insurance premiums. America’s health care system is broken. As a result, some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens lack access even to the most basic health care. More than five decades ago Congress created Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to elderly and low-income Americans, respectively. But millions of American children whose parents made too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to purchase health insurance were being left behind. For this reason, Congress created the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) – a federally and state funded program that covered uninsured children. That important program just expired, and over the past few months I’ve been working with my Senate colleagues to extend it.

In late September, Congress passed a bipartisan bill that set aside $35 billion in new federal funding over the next five years to ensure that more than 10 million American children will either keep their health care coverage or receive it for the first time. About 100,000 New Mexico children lack health care coverage. Under Congress' proposal, tens-of-thousands of additional New Mexico children would have had access to health care for the first time. I thought it was a very good bill. Unfortunately President Bush vetoed it, ostensibly because it would spend an additional $7 billion a year--about what is currently spent every three weeks to sustain the war effort in Iraq. Regrettably, Congress was unable to override the president’s veto. As we go back to the drawing board, I will be working hard to include many of the same provisions I was able to get in the vetoed bill. For instance, I will press to include a proposal that requires SCHIP to provide dental services. Dental health is important to overall quality of life, and the neglect of dental care in kids does damage to their teeth for a lifetime. And that is why I have made dental care expansion a priority.

Current law prevents New Mexico from covering a certain category of low-income children and has forced the state to return more than $180 million to the federal government since 1998. I want to correct that inequity, and use that money to cover the health care of New Mexicans. I also will press for allowing states to automatically enroll children in SCHIP if they have already been deemed eligible for another public program with comparable income guidelines, such as the
National School Lunch Program or the Food Stamp Program. This will ensure that eligible children get coverage. As I travel around New Mexico, it has become clear that children are not the only New Mexicans who lack health care. Many adults in our state are also uninsured. That is why I have also fought to make sure that the thousands of New Mexican parents who are currently receiving health insurance through SCHIP will not lose coverage. The SCHIP program has always been primarily focused on children, and that’s how it will remain. However, a handful of states, including New Mexico, which have historically covered adults through SCHIP, should be able to do so to ensure that these low-income families continue to receive quality health care. I hope that we can get SCHIP legislation enacted in the coming weeks, and I will work to ensure the bill is good for New Mexico. In addition, a broader source of federal funding is needed to support efforts by New Mexico and other states to provide access to affordable coverage to their residents. That is why I and a bipartisan group of senators and members of the House of Representatives, have introduced groundbreaking legislation titled The Health Partnership Act, aimed at extending health care to those who lack coverage. This bill is intended to break the logjam in Washington and allow states to experiment with various efforts to reduce the number of uninsured through a federal-state partnership.

The conventional wisdom is that it is impossible to make any significant progress to help the uninsured in a polarized Congress. I disagree. The Census Bureau reports that the number of uninsured Americans has grown to over 45 million Americans. The Health Partnership Act provides a path to move forward by allowing a diverse array of ideas to be tried in specific states. The legislation allows states to test strategies that span the political spectrum to see which are most effective, while protecting Americans already enrolled in programs.

There is no single prescription to solving our nation’s serious uninsured problem, and extending health care to the millions of Americans who are uninsured will require the innovation of governors and other leaders in all 50 states. This legislation simply helps each state implement the solution that is right for them. The issue of health care, whether it is for children, adults or families, is of utmost importance, and getting our arms around this problem will help strengthen our healthcare system and reduce costs in the long run.

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