Groups rally for children’s health plan

By Jonathan Jacobson

Organizations across the country have mobilized to score the 15 votes necessary in the House for an override to President Bush’s veto of the expansion of a children’s health initiative last week.

One district these advocacy groups are focusing on is the district of Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Ill.), which includes Champaign-Urbana. Johnson voted against the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

The bill would provide an additional $35 billion for the program, which is meant to assist children whose families do not qualify for Medicaid but also do not have the income to afford private insurance.

Claudia Lenhoff, executive director of the Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said the bill would not increase the number of children eligible for the insurance program – one of President Bush’s issues with the expansion – but rather provide the government with the money to reach out to those who already qualify but have yet to sign up.

“All of us who work on the ground know there aren’t the resources to provide the assistance with enrollment,” she said.

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Lenhoff also pointed to the proven track record of the program, which began in 1997. “It had a tremendous impact on uninsured children,” she said. “We want to make sure that all the kids who currently have coverage through SCHIP programs don’t lose that coverage.”

Critics of the legislation like Johnson, who has previously co-sponsored a bill that would expand SCHIP, said that this bill, as President Bush stated in his radio address last week, is “deeply flawed.”

The problem, argues Johnson’s spokesman Phil Bloomer, is that “it’s not getting to the people who need it most.”

“This is a good program,” Bloomer said. “There’s some loopholes that need to be closed.”

Community activists, though, are unsatisfied. They are pushing for Johnson to override the veto. A rally sponsored by nine different organizations, including the liberal political action group MoveOn.org, is currently scheduled for Oct. 11 at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Champaign. A similar meeting was held in Urbana last Thursday.

Bloomer said phones were ringing so often in Johnson’s Champaign office Tuesday that the staff was barely able to get any work done. He said MoveOn.org had sponsored a “robo-call” campaign where computerized calls encourage constituents to notify their representative about problems they have with the program. The calls also allow them to connect directly to Johnson’s office.

“The SCHIP program is overwhelmingly popular, and it serves thousands of children in Illinois,” said Robert Naiman, the host of last Thursday’s meeting. “If (Johnson) was ever going to buck the president and Republican leadership, this would be a plausible issue for him to choose.”

Naiman, a local community activist, said people generally have the least opposition to “sin taxes,” such as the one on cigarettes that would provide the backbone of funding for the expansion.

“From a public health point of view, arguably you should tax things that are bad for health and bad for young peoples’ health,” he said.

But Bloomer said Johnson would prefer that funding come from a general tax, not one that targets smokers.

“This particular tax would fall mainly on low-income people who generally make up most of the smokers,” Bloomer said.

He said Johnson is interested in a compromise, though he would not make a statement on whether or not Johnson would support an override on Oct. 18, the date on which the vote in the house is scheduled.

Katie Coombes, the organizing director of Citizen Action/Illinois, another participant in the Oct. 11 rally, said this heavily politicized squabble over an issue as plain as children’s health care was completely unexpected.

“This is a huge fight because this is supposed to be a no brainer,” Coombes wrote in an e-mail.