Govs, Bush Vow Closer Health-Care Efforts

 

The Bush administration pledged to help states in danger of running out of money for a popular children's health program and agreed to work with a newly created task force of governors on ideas for overall health-care reform.

Iraq, education, energy and immigration also were among the issues that President Bush and his Cabinet discussed Monday (Feb. 26) with the nation's governors in a 90-minute White House meeting , but health care was the immediate need for many governors.

The Bush administration wouldn't specify how much emergency funding it would ask Congress to approve soon for the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) or w here the money would come from in the federal budget, but governors were heartened that the administration was on board.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt "made it clear that the administration would work with Congress on supplemental funding" for S-CHIP, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) told reporters at a news conference after meeting with the president.

At least 14 states face shortfalls by spring if Congress doesn't step in with more money for S-CHIP, which provides subsidized health insurance to families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. The emergency infusion of cash would only address part of states' concerns over S-CHIP. Many governors and the White House are still in conflict over Bush's proposal to scale back the 10-year-old program when Congress reauthorizes it later this year.

In a Feb. 26 letter to leaders on Capitol Hill, all the governors urged Congress to "immediately pass legislation" to prevent any state from running out of money in the coming months.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) said he was encouraged that Leavitt, the HHS secretary, wants to work with governors on the larger issue of health-care accessibility and affordability, saying that Leavitt described the current political climate as a "historic opportunity in our country's history to address" health care.

The governors will establish a task force to work with Congress and the White House in a similar way the NGA created a task force on Medicaid, Baldacci told Stateline.org . Some of the recommendations from the 2003 NGA Medicaid task force became law when Congress passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

Leavitt, who later in the day attended an NGA session on health care, said he was "delighted" by NGA's offer to put together the task force on transforming the current U.S. health care system. "I feel optimistic that, in the near future, we'll look back on this as a time of great change, and I look forward to working with you and the other governors in accomplishing this."

In his remarks to the governors, Bush plugged his own health-care package, according to a transcript. Bush is proposing tax deductions for individuals who purchase their own health insurance policies. He also wants to create a new "Affordable Choices" program that would give more federal funds to states with "innovative approaches" for expanding access to health insurance. The administration, however, wants to take existing federal money from a program that pays hospitals that serve poor patients. Many states want the extra cash, but not at the expense of the other program.

In the long term, Bush wants to freeze the number of adults on S-CHIP and focus the program on children in families making twice the federal poverty level. A key congressional Democrat told governors that Bush's long-term health care proposals face stiff resistance in the Democratic-controlled Congress.

"I want to make it clear that I have absolutely no intention of moving of moving the president's proposals through our subcommittee. Some of you have heard that what the president's proposed in terms of S-CHIP is dead on arrival, and I would say that's very true," said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., who heads a House subcommittee on health.

On Iraq, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) said governors broached several issues related to National Guard deployment with U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also was at the White House. Part-time soldiers in state-based Guard units serve at the direction of governors until activated for active military by the president. Rell said one issue with the U.S. military's heavy reliance on Guard units to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan is that Guard units are left with inadequate equipment at home, where they're often dispatched to help during natural disasters. "General Pace understands our plight. He didn't offer specifics or money," she said.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D) told Stateline.org the current system isn't working. "The dual role of the Guard working here to keep our people safe and working overseas requires that they have equipment here to work and do their job and to have it to train so that they are ready when they go overseas. Right now they have neither. … It cannot continue."

On immigration, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) said he thought the president was on the right track with his proposed guest-worker program that stalled last year in the Republican-controlled Congress. Rendell said a thornier question was how to deal with the estimated 12 million people who already are in the United States illegally.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), who has taken an aggressive stand on immigration in her own state and in her involvement in the Western Governors Association, likewise agrees with the president's approach on immigration and urged Congress to act. "If there's one thing I can say right now, it is imperative that Congress move comprehensive reform legislation so we get a law that's enforceable and then we can enforce it," she told reporters after the White House briefing. Napolitano is chairwoman of the NGA this year.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), the vice chair of the NGA, said the country needs "tamper-proof, fraud-proof, biometrically imbedded card or identity document" that he said could be instantly verified.  He added that employers who knowingly and intentionally hire illegal immigrants should pay "significant consequences" in higher penalties.

At the White House meeting, Bush touted his plan to boost the use of biofuels, made from everything from corn to sugar cane, to 35 billion gallons a year as a way to cut gasoline use 20 percent in the next decade and address global warming.

But governors pressed their view that the nation needs a broader approach to creating alternative and renewable energy during a later meeting with U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman. North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) said states with significant potential for wind power need more federal leeway for financing transmission lines to export their renewable energy. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) insisted that biodiesel and electricity from clean-coal technologies would have to be a larger part of the nation's future energy mix. And Pennsylvania's Rendell (D) told Bodman that the U.S. government could help create the market for alternative fuels by agreeing to purchase more biodiesel for federal fleets and especially for the U.S. military.

To reduce global warming and encourage cleaner energy sources, governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington unveiled a joint plan to reduce greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. The five states will set targets for greenhouse-gas reductions within six months and then develop a regional cap-and-trade system for businesses that emit carbon dioxide. The regional plan follows precedent-setting steps by California last year to require smokestack emissions of carbon dioxide to be cut 25 percent by 2020 and an order by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to cut the carbon content in transportation fuels in the state.

Stateline.org staff writers Eric Kelderman, Daniel C. Vock and Pauline Vu contributed to this report.

 
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