The U.S. Senate should renew the most successful public health insurance program we have.

Congress is working this week to reauthorize the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (better known as SCHIP). This will be the first significant legislation submitted to President-elect Barack Obama when he takes office, and could not have come at a better time for Maine children and their parents.

Economic insecurity is high and countless families are worried about what will happen if they lose their jobs and health insurance. SCHIP can provide a measure of reassurance and a vital link to the health-care system for children through the state and nation.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to expand SCHIP on Jan. 14; a Senate vote is expected soon. These votes are examples of how a new Congress can respond quickly and effectively to pressing national needs.

SCHIP is one of the most successful health-care programs ever enacted by the federal government. Over the past 10 years, this federal-state partnership has ensured that millions of kids get regular access to health care, which allows them to grow up as healthy and productive citizens.

States are given substantial flexibility to design programs that best meet their needs. In Maine, SCHIP is part of the MaineCare program and covers thousands of children. It includes the preventive care that is the best way to ensure a good start in life. No longer do parents have to worry about whether they can afford to take their children to the doctor when they need help.

The five-year renewal of SCHIP is urgently needed because the current program expires in March. During the Bush administration, extensions of the program were vetoed twice, with Congress falling just short in attempts to override. SCHIP is supported by the president-elect and by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities of Congress.

The extension and expansion of the program, with an additional appropriation of $35 billion over five years, is an extraordinary health-care bargain at a time of sharply rising costs. With the SCHIP renewal, Maine will be able to cover nearly 15,000 more children, and also receive new funding for 11,000 kids who are currently eligible.

This brings us very close to offering universal access to care for Maine’s children, a guarantee comparable to what Medicare offers for seniors and Medicaid for lower-income families.

Some advocates of universal access for all Americans had suggested a delay in the SCHIP vote until an omnibus bill could be offered. Congress wisely decided to go ahead now to provide this basic health-care building block. When efforts to provide universal access are debated, SCHIP will be an important example of how the nation can meet health-care needs effectively and at a reasonable cost.

Maine’s congressional delegation has strongly supported SCHIP in the past, and our senators and representatives continue to play leading roles in the effort. This week, the Senate Finance Committee is marking up an SCHIP bill, where Sen. Olympia Snowe has been an outspoken advocate.

At the Maine Children’s Alliance, we are grateful for the fine work of the delegation, which has been united and forceful on behalf of families and children.

The new legislation resembles the 2008 bill in many respects, and a likely amendment will add a provision guaranteeing coverage for the children of immigrants who are legal residents. This is an important provision that will provide benefits to many working families.

There has been much discussion, in Washington and throughout the country, about how government can stabilize and restore our economy amid a severe recession. SCHIP unites the state and the federal government in an important mission. It is a great example of how programs can work to provide economic security to families, while making sure we honor our commitment to seeing that the next generation of Mainers is a healthy and thriving one.

Elinor Goldberg is president of the Maine Children’s Alliance, a statewide advocacy organization based in Augusta.


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