President Bush’s threatened veto of legislation to renew and expand the popular State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) puts at risk medical insurance for 5 million or more poor children, according to fighters for children’s health care.

Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, told the World that representatives and senators must vote overwhelmingly to approve the legislation to “send a signal that they have the votes to override a presidential veto.”

The House was scheduled to vote Sept. 25 on final passage of compromise legislation written by a House-Senate conference committee to extend SCHIP and increase funding over the next five years by $35 billion. The program was scheduled to expire Sept. 30.

The struggle to renew and expand the program “is probably the most important vote on a domestic issue the lawmakers will cast this year,” Weinstein said. “It sends such an important signal on whether they will stand up to the president and abandon his ill-considered policy on children’s health.”

The conference committee leaned toward the less generous Senate version in hopes of attracting a large enough bipartisan majority to override a Bush veto, Weinstein said. “The key element of the legislation is that it will protect all those children currently insured under SCHIP and will expand coverage to nearly 4 million children who would otherwise be uninsured.” A vote in the Senate is expected next week.

Then looms the battle to override Bush’s threatened veto.

Speaking at a White House news conference last week, Bush touted his plan to increase funding by only $5 billion over the next five years. Bush accused the bipartisan majority that voted for the $35 billion expansion of “putting health care coverage for poor children at risk,” as if they and not he were responsible for the veto. Bush charged that expansion of the program “is a step toward federalization of health care.”

Weinstein reacted angrily: “That’s baloney. He is shamefully hypocritical about this. We estimate that under his plan, by 2012 between 800,000 and a million fewer children would be protected than we cover now in SCHIP.” Add to that his veto of a bill that extends coverage to an additional 4 million children and it means Bush is stripping 5 million or more youngsters of protection, she charged.

The SCHIP program runs through private providers, she pointed out. It enjoys tremendous bipartisan support. A letter signed by 30 governors on a bipartisan basis asked Congress to pass this legislation. “Bush is really standing out there alone on this, using this to promote his agenda such as tax credits for the uninsured that are totally ineffective.”

Weinstein added, “All the data shows that children were losing health insurance protection year after year until 1997 when SCHIP was enacted. The private sector has failed to insure children just as it has failed to provide health insurance for everyone else. SCHIP is meeting a need from the failure of the employer-based health insurance system.”

A report released last year by the Campaign for Children’s Health Care titled “No Shelter From the Storm: America’s Uninsured Children” charges that “one of every five uninsured is a child.” Close to 50 million people in the U.S. lack health insurance.

Enactment of SCHIP in 1998 began to reverse the scandalous rate of unprotected children. But the most recent data from the Census Bureau shows that since the Bush-Cheney administration took power, “for the first time since 1998, the rate of uninsured children increased, from 10.8 percent to 11.2 percent. One in nine children is uninsured and more than one-half of all uninsured children live in two-parent families.”

The report adds, “Gone are the days when working parents could rely on employer-based health insurance to cover the whole family. Today, low-income parents often do not have access to a health plan at work, or their employer’s plan may be unaffordable.”