Making a down payment on President-elect Barack Obama’s promise of universal health coverage, the House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to expand government-sponsored insurance to 4 million more children in working families with income too high to qualify for Medicaid.
Between 300,000 and 600,000 of the new enrollees could be non-citizen children of legal immigrants who have been in the country less than five years, a sticking point for some Senate Republicans who also will consider a similar bill.
Forty Republicans joined Democrats in passing the bill 289-139. Congress passed similar legislation in 2007 but it was vetoed both times by departing President George W. Bush.
The bill would raise the federal excise tax on cigarettes by 61 cents to $1 a pack to pay for the $32.3 billion cost of expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program for the next 4 1/2 years. Other tobacco products would experience a comparable tax increase.
About 7 million children now get government-sponsored health care through SCHIP.
“This is only the beginning of the change we will achieve with our new president,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who got a congratulatory call from Obama after the vote.
The bill would provide coverage for pregnant legal immigrants in addition their non-citizen children who entered the U.S. in the past five years.
Current law requires a five-year waiting period before legal immigrants become eligible for coverage under Medicaid and SCHIP. Supporters say expanding coverage would mean children could get treatment for acute conditions like asthma and diabetes so they were less likely to need care in an emergency room.
“These are not illegal immigrants. They are children who go to school, go to daycare with our children, our grandchildren,” said Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas. “Those children ought to have health care.”