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Congress Eyes Expanding Children’s Health Insurance

Lawmakers and President Bush have been at odds over funding for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which is set to expire this year. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and GOP Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty debate the matter.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Next, providing health insurance for children, and to Gwen Ifill.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The battle over spending on health care for children comes to a head on Capitol Hill this week. The State Children's Health Insurance Program is up for renewal. At stake is government-backed health care coverage for roughly six million poor children and, in some states, nearly 600,000 adults.

    The House bill proposes adding $50 billion to the program over the next five years, the Senate about $35 billion more. Either plan would represent the biggest expansion of health care coverage in a decade. President Bush, however, says they are too expensive and has threatened to veto either measure.

    We look at the arguments from both sides, beginning with the secretary of health and human services, Mike Leavitt.

    Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

    MIKE LEAVITT, Health and Human Services Secretary: Thank you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Why is it that the president wants to veto this legislation?

  • MIKE LEAVITT:

    The president desires to have the State Children's Health Insurance Program reauthorized. It's very important; he'd like Congress to do it soon. We think it's an important program. We want to make certain that no child who's currently covered by the program or eligible for the program loses that eligibility.

    What he objects to is using this program or its reauthorization as a chance to expand dramatically the number of people who have federal health care. He believes that, while every American needs access to an affordable basic policy, that there are better ways to do it than to put people who make $80,000 a year on welfare.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's take that bit by bit. But start first, you said the president is interested in reauthorizing this program, but just not the way Congress is proposing. What would he propose instead?

  • MIKE LEAVITT:

    Well, he'd like to continue the program as it currently is. We think it's been successful. We'd like to assure that no child who is currently eligible would lose that eligibility. And we would like to then move to a larger debate, which would be, how can we make certain that every American, including children of every income, have access to a basic insurance policy they can afford?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I believe the president's proposal would come to about $5 billion, but the Congressional Budget Office says it would cost $14 billion just to cover the number of people who are covered now. How do you reconcile those two numbers?

  • MIKE LEAVITT:

    Well, actually the president's proposed just under $10 billion, which we think is adequate. If the number is wrong to cover our policy then we're obviously willing to discuss that.

    The number isn't what's important. The number — what's important is that we agree on what this government program is intended to do. The president believes it should cover those children who are poor, not those who are moderate-income or, in some cases, higher-income brackets.