About a decade ago, the federal government recognized what an important investment it is to make sure the nation’s children have access to quality medical care, even if their parents can’t afford health insurance.
The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) has been a federal-state partnership ever since. New Jersey’s SCHIP is called FamilyCare, and it differs from other states’ programs in an important way.
New Jersey sets more inclusive income eligibility standards, reflecting the reality that the state’s cost of living is one-third above the U.S. average. The bottom line is that many kids whose family income is too high to get into other state’s SCHIPs are covered by FamilyCare. A dollar just doesn’t go as far in New Jersey, so the state’s rules make a lot of sense.
For the most part, there has been bipartisan support for giving New Jersey this kind of leeway. But now that support is threatened.
Federal rules due to take effect in August would effectively limit SCHIP eligibility across the nation to families with incomes no more than 2.5 times the poverty level. New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District (covering parts of Burlington, Camden and Ocean Counties) would be especially hard hit. Nearly 65 percent of the children in Saxton’s district who would otherwise be expected to enroll in FamilyCare over the next five years would be ineligible under the new rules. The district would lose about $16 million in public funds in the process.
Twice, President Bush has vetoed legislation that would have stopped these rule changes. And both times the 3rd District’s U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., voted to uphold the vetoes. He did so in contrast to fellow South Jersey Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo in the 2nd District who crossed party lines to benefit New Jersey’s children.
This should be about much more than politics. As the economy continues to weaken, health coverage becomes even more important. Faced with mortgage foreclosures and rising costs for food and gasoline, working families hardly need their children to be denied health-care coverage because Washington politicians think mom and dad ought to be able to afford something that, in reality, is out of reach. The benefits of providing health coverage for children are well documented: children receive the immunizations they require and more serious diseases are prevented. They even perform better in school.
The Bush administration’s argument that SCHIP is too expensive seems far-fetched, given that the administration also opposes any limits on funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will eventually cost $2.4 trillion. Indeed, Saxton was recently lauded by his colleagues in a salutary amendment to the 2009 defense spending bill for obtaining nearly $2 billion in defense work in his district over his career – work paid for, of course, by tax dollars. Saxton’s priorities should include kids, too.
Saxton’s care subsidized
When Saxton retires after his current House term, he’ll have one of the best health-insurance policies in the nation. Taxpayers provide that for members of Congress. The unfairness of the current system of health coverage is matched only by the sad irony that the parents of children Saxton voted to deny health coverage to – who often work two jobs to make ends meet – will pay for Saxton’s health coverage.
It’s not too late for a change of heart. A call from Saxton to the White House on this issue could help avert a possible crisis in his district and the state. He should also support legislation, possibly up for consideration later this year, that would either eliminate or place a one-year moratorium on the Bush rules.
The parents and their uninsured children in Saxton’s district, who depend on him to represent them in Washington, deserve at least that much.
The writer is senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in Trenton that conducts research on state issues. For more information, visit www.njpp.org.