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Bush warns against children's health plan

He calls a Democratic effort to expand a popular program a move toward U.S. takeover of healthcare.

June 28, 2007|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Laying down a marker on healthcare, President Bush on Wednesday strongly criticized a push by Democrats and some moderate Republicans to broaden a popular children's insurance program. Bush called the plan a step toward a government takeover of medicine.

After months of watching from the sidelines as Congress ignored his healthcare ideas, Bush forcefully reinserted himself into the debate. His bottom line: Government healthcare programs should focus on the poor and near-poor, not on middle-class families.

"That's the divide," Bush said at a White House event. He proposed helping middle-income families by changing the tax code to help make private insurance more affordable.

Democrats, he added, want "to take incremental steps down the path to government-run healthcare for every American. It's the wrong path for our nation."

He said that would eliminate choice and competition in healthcare, cause huge increases in government spending that could lead to higher taxes, and "result in rationing, inefficiency and long waiting lines."

Congressional Democrats favor expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known in California as Healthy Families, to cover more middle-income families.

Nationally, it covers more than 6 million youths -- as well as some adults -- mainly in low-income working families. Legal authority for the program expires in a few months, and its reauthorization is generally considered the most important healthcare decision Congress will make this year.

Bush "is absolutely drawing the line," said Grace-Marie Turner, a healthcare policy expert who attended a White House meeting with the president Wednesday.

"He is saying further expansion of government programs is not the way to go. We want to increase access to private health insurance," said Turner, who heads the Galen Institute, a research group that advocates market-based healthcare reforms.

Leading Democrats immediately took exception to Bush's remarks.

The president's "controversial healthcare tax proposals would not be a responsible path to take," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). His panel has been stymied in a behind-the-scenes effort to reach a bipartisan compromise on renewal legislation.

Said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.): "Once again, the president's solution is to put everyone at the mercy of private insurers."

A standoff between the White House and the Democratic-led Congress could affect the future of the program, which is already short of funds in some states. Instead of the multiyear extension that all sides agree would be desirable, a stalemate in Washington would probably result in an extension that lasts a year or two.

Democrats have wanted to use the reauthorization as a springboard to provide coverage for most of the estimated 9 million children who are uninsured -- a step toward providing coverage for everyone in the United States.

But that approach would significantly add to the cost of the program, currently about $5 billion a year.

Bush has proposed spending about $10 billion more over five years; Democrats want to boost that to about $50 billion. The Democrats' proposal would also expand coverage for children through Medicaid, which serves the poor.

Bush says his plan would provide enough funding to cover children in households making up to twice the federal poverty level, about $40,000 for a family of four. But Democrats question that assertion, and say children would have to be dropped from the rolls under Bush's plan. Many states, including California, want to provide more generous subsidies that would include middle-class households making up to $60,000 a year for a family of four.

Bush said he was willing to tweak the healthcare tax plan he proposed in January to give more assistance to lower-middle class families. Instead of a tax deduction, which mainly helps people with higher incomes, he would be open to a tax credit, which helps those with lower incomes. But for now, Congress seems unlikely to take him up on that.

Health economist Len Nichols of the New America Foundation, who also attended the White House event, said Bush accused Democrats of being "single-payer advocates," a term for supporters of government-run systems such as Canada's.

"That is a funny way to get cooperation," Nichols said.

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ricardo.alonso-zaldivar@latimes.com

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