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Are healthy children a danger?

IT IS HARD to believe that anyone would oppose giving healthcare to sick children on the grounds that it is a slippery slope to "federalized medicine." Yet that is just what President Bush is saying about expanding S-Chip, the 10-year-old Children's Health Insurance Program that is up for reauthorization.

S-Chip was enacted in 1997 to provide health insurance for children who were poor, but not poor enough to be covered by Medicaid. The program gets federal and state funding (the S stands for state). And according to the Congressional Budget Office, S-Chip has succeeded: the proportion of children without insurance has fallen by one-fourth, from 22.5 percent in 1996 to 16.9 percent in 2005.

In his 2008 budget, President Bush proposed an increase of $5 billion over five years. But this is not enough. Just to maintain its current enrollment, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that S-Chip would need an increase from 2007 to 2012 of $14 billion.

Letting S-Chip tread water is a mistake. It would deny coverage to an estimated 2 million children who are eligible but not enrolled. And it ignores a larger problem: Of the nation's 79 million children, 9 million are uninsured, according to the Children's Defense Fund. That's why Democrats had sought a $50 billion budget increase -- a number that's being negotiated by the Senate Finance Committee.

Bush objects, and his reasons are more about ideology than fiscal discipline. In a speech in Cleveland Tuesday, the president complained that expanding S-Chip could go beyond the original intent of helping poor children and would be "a way to encourage people to transfer from the private sector to government healthcare plans." And he declared that he will "resist Congress's attempt to federalize medicine." These comments rely on scare tactics and diversion.

The president went on to praise healthcare savings accounts, tax reform, and exercise. Yet not one of those items solves the core problem: that millions of families cannot afford healthcare for their children.

Expanding S-Chip is only an effort to fix a festering problem. Some children don't get needed dental care. Others get inadequate care for asthma and other chronic diseases. Some parents spend months applying or reapplying for coverage. And children lose coverage because of mismanaged paperwork. It's devastating for parents, who can face huge bills. And far worse are the heartbreaking weeks and months of fighting to get badly needed care for their ill children.

This outrage cries out for a fast bipartisan response, including more federal funding and more outreach to eligible but unenrolled families. Rather than engaging in false arguments about federalization, Congress and the president should focus on helping children.