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Name-calling begins in Maryland health-care debate

December 12, 2007|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

HAGERSTOWN - A lobbying group sought Tuesday to push U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett to change his vote on a children's health-care funding bill by labeling him Maryland's "Grinch."

An aide to the congressman dismissed the criticism and said Bartlett, R-6th, is hopeful that congressional Democrats are moving closer to an alternative bill he supports reaching more poor children.

But at a news conference Tuesday in front of Bartlett's Robinwood Drive office, a group called Progressive Maryland, local labor, NAACP and other group leaders criticized the congressman, saying he isn't supporting families. The speakers blasted him for recent votes, including one against legislation on the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

There are thousands of children who need health care, but Bartlett's vote "virtually denied health coverage to these children," said Jim Bestpitch, president of the Western Maryland Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO. "Shame on you!"

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But Bartlett's office released a statement from the congressman Tuesday. "I'm proud that I voted to create the SCHIP program in 1997 because I want to provide health insurance for children of working poor families, but that is not what this debate is about," Bartlett said.

Lisa Wright, Bartlett's press secretary, said the current issue largely is about income levels of families qualifying for the program.

SCHIP provides health insurance to children in families with incomes too high for Medicaid eligibility, but not enough to afford private insurance. The program now covers 6 million children.

In October, President Bush vetoed legislation that would increase spending on SCHIP by $35 billion over five years, adding 4 million children to the program. Bush had called for a $5 billion increase.

Since then, the Democratic leadership has proposed other legislation in efforts to woo more lawmakers to the cause.

Matthew Weinstein, federal issues director for Progressive Maryland, said this legislation could help the estimated 69,500 children in Maryland who don't have health-care coverage.

He said he thinks most of these are in families in income ranges - $20,000 to $40,000 for a family of four, for example - covered in many states now. But the proposals also would cover such families earning up to $60,000 because they're in trouble, too, he said.

"They are below the median family income, so they fall in the bottom half of the population," Weinstein said. "Their employers don't issue health insurance and they can't afford it and they need the assistance for their kids."

But Wright said Bartlett is co-sponsoring legislation that would extend SCHIP coverage to the estimated 75,000 children that income tax returns show live in Maryland and should be qualifying now. She said $40,000 is the income limit now for a family of four.

Asked about Bartlett's support of a bill to help 75,000 children, Weinstein said he doesn't believe it.

"That's impossible," Weinstein said. "It's a typical ploy (by) a conservative politician who wants to vote with the president. I just don't buy it."

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