Herger on the spot

Rep. Wally Herger (R-Chico) has what he considers good reasons for opposing H.R. 976, the compromise bill Congress approved reauthorizing the State Child Health Improvement Program, or SCHIP, which is known in California as the Healthy Families program.

As Herger states on his Web site, he supported the original, bipartisan 1997 legislation establishing the program, as well as a reauthorization bill proposed by President Bush that would have increased total spending on the program by $5 billion, from $25 billion to $30 billion.

The bipartisan bill Congress instead approved, Herger says, would expand the program significantly and change the eligibility criteria to allow children of the middle class, many of whom already have private health insurance, to receive government-paid insurance. In this he’s echoing the president, who charged that the bill would be a step down the slippery slope toward socialized medicine.

Herger didn’t cast a vote on the bill, but the president vetoed it, and it will be back before Congress next Thursday, Oct. 18. If just 14 House Republicans join those already in support of the legislation, the veto will be overridden.

With health-care costs rising so fast, and with living costs so high in California, President Bush’s proposal—a 20 percent increase after 10 years—simply isn’t sufficient to fund the program. According to a California Healthcare Foundation study, if SCHIP funding remains at current levels, Healthy Families will run out of money next summer. And there is no basis for the argument that the increased funding would lead some families to drop their private insurance for public coverage. Indeed, the health-insurance industry has weighed in on this, saying it doesn’t believe “crowd out” would be a problem and endorsing Congress’ legislation.

Herger’s position is not good for the people of California. For one thing, the program provides $2 in federal funding for every $1 from the state. As the state works to develop universal health insurance, the Schwarzenegger administration is counting on an expansion of Healthy Families to help cover the cost. Currently the program covers some 831,000 children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medi-Cal but too little to afford private insurance; under Congress’ proposal, as many as another 800,000 uninsured children could be added.

Herger is in a bind. Having voted consistently for the president’s tax cuts and funding for the misguided war in Iraq, he is now trying to be frugal at the expense of low-income children. In doing so, he is flying in the face of the wishes of most Californians and, we expect, most of his constituents. For years we’ve watched him march in lock-step behind the president, supporting his every endeavor, no matter how ill-conceived. For once, we hope, Herger will have the courage and wisdom to do the right thing and vote for the people of his district and state.