Topeka Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Friday urged Congress to approve funding for a children's health insurance program and override President Bush if he follows through on a veto threat.
Flanked by fifth-graders at Lowman Hill Elementary, Sebelius said, "These kids are not going to be able to learn unless they are healthy and ready to go to school."
At the center of the battle is funding of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which was started in 1997 and insures 6.6 million children nationwide.
SCHIP is designed to provide low-cost coverage of children of working families that make too much to be eligible for Medicaid but too little to purchase private insurance.
In Kansas, the program goes under the name HealthWave and covers 35,000 children.
Congress and Bush are at loggerheads over refinancing the program.
The House has approved legislation to increase funding by $50 million during the next five years, while the Senate has recommended $35 million. Both proposals would be funded by an increase in the federal tobacco tax.
The program expires Sept. 30 unless Congress approves reauthorization.
But Bush has threatened to veto the congressional proposals, calling instead for an increase of $5 billion. Some Republicans have argued that the House and Senate plans would expand the program beyond its original intent by helping pay for insurance for families that should be able to afford it on their own.
And the Bush administration has enacted rules that prevent states from increasing income limits for the program unless they enroll 95 percent of children in the lower income levels. On Friday, federal officials rejected an application from New York to expand the children's health insurance program.
Sebelius said Bush's proposal would hurt states because it is impossible to reach the 95 percent threshold.
Gary Brunk, president and chief executive officer of Kansas Action for Children, said states need to be able to tailor the health insurance programs to their needs.
For instance, he said, the number of children below the poverty line in Kansas who have coverage is on the rise, but those just above the poverty line who have coverage has decreased, prompting the need to increase income limits to get more people eligible for HealthWave.
"That is why flexibility ... is an essential thing," Brunk said.
Sebelius added that Bush's proposed $5 billion increase would not come close to helping states get to higher enrollment figures. There are an estimated 55,000 uninsured children in Kansas; 70 percent of whom are eligible for HealthWave, the governor's office reported.
On the funding side, Sebelius said she supported an increase in the federal tax on cigarettes, which is 39 cents per pack.
Sebelius said the public supports increases in the cigarette tax if the funds were used for health care. And, she said, any increase will deter young smokers.
"They are very price sensitive. So if you don't want kids to smoke, raise the taxes," she said.