No time to waste: SCHIP vote just one step on road to health reform

January 19, 2009

WASHINGTON – As the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program zooms through Congress at nearly unprecedented speed, health reform advocates aren’t taking the time to pat themselves on the back.

“There’s a tremendous amount to be enthusiastic about in the SCHIP reauthorization,” said Alan Weil, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy and former executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, at a Jan. 15 forum in Washington on “Health Care Reform and Children: The Prognosis for Change in 2009.”

“But SCHIP is not a comprehensive health agenda and was not meant to be,” Weil added. “Much work remains to be done.”

The reauthorization bill that passed the House by a 289-139 vote Jan. 14 would expand the joint federal-state program to include about 4 million more children, including some 240,000 children of legal immigrants. It would be funded by increasing the federal tax on cigarettes by 61 cents to a dollar per pack.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a similar version of the legislation late Jan. 15, and President-elect Barack Obama has said he hopes to sign the reauthorization bill as one of his first acts as president.

SCHIP reauthorization, twice vetoed by President George W. Bush in 2007, and broader health reform have been priority issues for groups such as the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities USA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Sister Carol Keehan said in a Jan. 14 statement that the House vote was a good first step. “Reauthorization of SCHIP and expanding the program’s ability to cover additional low-income populations is an important part of what we hope will be quick action to achieve affordable and accessible health care for everyone,” said the Daughter of Charity who is CHA president and CEO.

A survey released Jan. 15 by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health showed strong public sentiment for prompt action on health care reform by the new president and Congress.

Asked whether certain actions should be a top priority of the new Congress and president, very important but not a top priority, somewhat important or not that important, 43 percent said reforming health care should be a top priority. The only actions that more respondents said should be a top priority were improving the country’s economic situation, selected by 73 percent, and fighting terrorism, chosen by 48 percent.

“The economic crisis has created an unprecedented window of opportunity for health reform,” said Drew Altman, Kaiser president and CEO, at a Washington briefing on the survey. “But we are in the early, happy-talk stage on health reform and the window could close if policymakers cannot move fairly quickly to take advantage of the opportunity they have.”

The time for health reform also is right in the business community, according to faith-based investors who are preparing to raise the issue before U.S. and international corporations during the 2009 shareholder season.

“Troubled economic times are also a time when we can stop and say, ‘What do we need to do to fix this?’“ said Sister Barbara Aires, coordinator of corporate responsibility for the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, N.J., during a Jan. 14 teleconference sponsored by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in New York.

The center is a coalition of about 275 faith-based institutional investors representing more than $100 billion in invested capital.

“As long-term institutional investors, members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility recognize the economic burden providing health benefits for employees places on American corporations,” said the Rev. David Schilling, a United Methodist minister who is program director for human rights at the center.

“Faith-based investors believe it is in the economic interest of portfolio companies to ensure that all Americans have access to health care that is affordable and provided equitably,” he added.

Calling health care reform “both a moral and financial issue,” Sister Barbara said her work has focused primarily on efforts to “seek common ground with corporations” on that issue, as well as on the issues of climate change and socially just compensation.

“All sides of the (national health care reform) debate must be considered,” she said. “All parties will have to yield something.”

Resolutions calling on corporations to adopt a set of principles covering access, quality, affordability and equitable financing of health care reform have been submitted to the boards of directors of 26 companies, more than double the 12 corporations that took up the matter in the 2008 shareholder season.

Laura Shaffer, director of shareholder activities at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a private grant-making foundation in the Jewish tradition, said that as both a grant-maker and an investor her foundation wants to be sure “that the companies we invest in are positioning themselves to shape policy in a way that’s beneficial for both society and the bottom line.”

“Corporations that ignore this debate,” she added, “do so at their peril.”