It was 15 years ago that Pennsylvania became a model for the nation with our enactment of the landmark Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).Five years later, in 1997, our national government, with its passage of the federal State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) became a partner in this effort to give children-from families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance-the quality health care they deserve.

Some 640,000 Pennsylvania children, children who otherwise would have gone without health care, have received coverage through CHIP since our state program's inception in 1992.

Just last year, meanwhile, Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Governor Ed Rendell, moved forward with a plan approved on a unanimous bipartisan vote in the state Senate-to make Pennsylvania's program even better; to raise the bar so that even more uninsured children from low to middle income families could qualify.

And our new state "Cover All Kids" initiative, which received the federal government's stamp of approval in February, is now fully in effect-providing free coverage to children from families earning below 200 percent of poverty (up to $41,300 for a family of four), subsidized low-cost coverage-with monthly premiums ranging from about $38 to $60 per child-to children from families between 200 percent and 300 percent of poverty (up to $61,950 for a family of four), and "at cost" below market coverage for uninsured children from families above 300 percent of poverty. As of this month, with participation rising with each passing month, 164,485 Pennsylvania children are covered through CHIP.

But, as is too often the case with our federal government, there has been a mixed message coming out of Washington of late.

On the one side is our Congress, moving toward final passage of a bipartisan compromise that would reauthorize the federal S-CHIP program and provide the federal support states need to expand CHIP coverage to more children.

On the other side is our President, threatening to veto the bill if it helps too many of America's children who remain uninsured. The rigid and misguided stance of the Bush administration against helping a few more kids grow up healthy was signaled August 17 when his bureaucracy sent out a letter to the states detailing new restrictive guidelines for CHIP eligibility.

Under this outlandish directive, Pennsylvania and all of the nation's states could be faced with pulling the plug on expanding coverage to more children unless 95 percent of all children under 200 percent of poverty are first covered.

While Pennsylvania is near that mark, at 93 percent, few other states are even close to 95 percent and the statistical threshold is nothing more than an arbitrary hoop to prevent more low to middle income children from receiving the coverage they deserve. The new dictate would also force children who need coverage to wait a year before they can be enrolled in CHIP.

This edict, as with the President's veto threat of the compromise S-CHIP legislation moving through Congress, is exactly the opposite direction of where we should be headed.

That's why this past week I wrote to the President and respectfully asked that he rethink his position.

It's also why I sponsored a state Senate resolution (SR 171) calling on our federal administration to abandon the new rules that would undermine Pennsylvania's "Cover All Kids" law and the efforts in 30 other states to expand children's health insurance coverage.

"Surely," as I wrote the President, "last resort hospital emergency room care for children whose working parents can't afford insurance should not be our nation's health care policy for kids going forward."

This is no time to roll back the clock on a program that is responsibly providing more children with the health care they most definitely deserve.

If you'd like to join me in writing to the White House, please send your letter to: The Honorable George W. Bush, President, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20500. The White House comment line is 202-456-1111, the fax line is 202-456-1414 and email may be sent to comments@whitehouse.gov.

Together, we can hopefully change the President's mind and make a healthy difference in the lives of Pennsylvania's most precious resource-our children.

Michael A. O'Pake is the state Senate Democratic whip. He represents Pennsylvania's 11th District.

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