WASHINGTON (AP) _ Governors from both parties appealed Sunday for the Bush administration and Congress to provide more money _ now and over the long term _ for a health care program that insures millions of children.
At stake is coverage for 6 million people, overwhelmingly children, as well as the hopes of many governors in tackling the larger challenge of the uninsured. All governors rely on the program, intended to aid uninsured working families.
``We can come to a consensus that children should be the first priority,'' said Gov. Sonny Perdue, R-Ga.
State leaders met privately to discuss the State Children's Health Insurance Program at their annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association.
``This is one area where I think people stand entirely together,'' said Gov. Jon Corzine, D-N.J.
Georgia and New Jersey are two of 14 states that are expected to run out of money for the program before the next budget year begins in October; in Georgia, it could be as soon as March.
The governors want two things:
_Enough money to keep the program float through October. That is estimated at $745 million.
_Changes to President Bush's budget. Analysts say his spending plan would shortchange the health program even if the number of people served did not grow. This figure is put at $10 billion to $15 billion over the next five years.
Administration officials have said that the president's plan offered a solution to the immediate shortfall by forcing states with surpluses in their program to surrender unspent money more quickly and help states with deficits.
The program, approved in 1997, covers uninsured children whose families earn too much to fall under Medicaid, the joint state-federal health care service for the poor.
More than a dozen states have expanded the SCHIP program, with consent of the federal government, to cover adults in those families. The program now insures an estimated 639,000 adults among its 6 million.
Many governors said the administration's efforts to scale back the program would undermine state efforts to craft universal health care plans. Many of these have started with a target of insuring all children.
``Many, many states seek to expand it as a step on the way to universal health care,'' said Gov. Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz. ``Governors are doing more on health care than anyone else.''
California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have developed some of the most ambitious proposals to try to get to universal health care coverage. Most states have just tried to strengthen their health care system to cover more people.
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt met privately with several governors during the weekend. He did not immediately return a message Sunday seeking comment about the governors' concerns.
At their private session Sunday, governors said there was bipartisan support for help on the immediate needs and a long-term commitment to the current program.
Napolitano, who heads the NGA, said the issue would come up Monday when governments meet with members of Bush's Cabinet. A bipartisan group of 13 governors has written congressional leaders asking them to cover the money shortfall before the budget year ends.
``We built all that up. We don't want to pull the rug out,'' said Gov. Don Carcieri, R-R.I. With aggressive enrollment, his state had enrolled 94 percent of children before administrative hurdles and other problems had lowered that number, he said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, D-Md., said that in their private lunch, many governors were ``visibly frustrated'' at the administration's approach. In public, several governors said they were confident they could work out a compromise.
Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa., unrolled a plan this year to extend coverage to nearly all his state's citizens. He said the administration had been helpful to his efforts and just last week approved a waiver allowing the state to raise its eligibility for the program to 350 percent of federal poverty.
``This covers about our last 180,000 children who aren't covered,'' Rendell said. ``I want to give the administration high praise.''
Amid all the discussion about dollars and percentages, the real cost is being ignored, some governors said.
``I think more about what it means to be a parent, a parent who can't go to sleep at night without worrying that if my kid gets ill tomorrow or gets in an accident, he won't have adequate coverage,'' said Gov. Tim Kaine, D-Va. ``I can't imagine more anxiety.''