Bush to Uninsured Kids: Drop Dead

The Democrats at last night's debate essentially ignored President Bush's full-scale assault Wedneday on a program, the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), designed to help relatively lower-income kids whose families don't qualify for Medicaid to get health care. The upshot: as many as six million kids are eligible for the program, but not enrolled, and they may not get access to any health care, while President Bush offers instead assorted privatization and tax-break schemes in response.

At the same time, he and his right-wing minions, such as Robert Novak, are smearing SCHIP as a first step towards socialized medicine. As David Kendall of the Progressive Policy Institute points out in a brilliant take-down of the administration's spin: "But instead of trying to make this successful program even better, the White House is in fact doing what it accuses Democrats of doing. It wants to recast SCHIP as a liberal program to scare the public with the specter of government-run health care and to advance its own conservative agenda. "

Democrats and moderate Republicans are seeking to expand the program to include more uninsured children, even if the families' incomes exceed the poverty line. As the Kaiser Daily Health Report explained:

President Bush on Wednesday said that proposals by Democratic and some moderate Republican lawmakers to expand SCHIP would result in more "incremental steps down the path to government-run health care for every American," a move that Bush said is "wrong ... for our nation," the Los Angeles Times reports. Many Democratic lawmakers support proposals to increase funds for SCHIP, which will expire in September, by about $50 billion over five years (Alonso-Zaldivar, Los Angeles Times, 6/28).

Bush has proposed to increase funds for SCHIP by $4.8 billion over five years. In addition, Bush has proposed to reduce federal funds for states that have expanded SCHIP eligibility to children in families with annual incomes more than 200% of the federal poverty level to refocus the program on low-income, uninsured children. At least 17 states would lose federal funds as a result of the proposal (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 4/2).

At a White House event on Wednesday, Bush said that a single-payer health care system would eliminate choice and competition; lead to large increases in federal spending that could result in higher taxes; and "result in rationing, inefficiency and long wait lines." In addition, Bush said he would consider revisions to his proposal to change the tax code to help make private health insurance more affordable for middle-income U.S. residents (Los Angeles Times, 6/28)."

Democrats have responded, but not as forcefully as they could, to the President's smear-and-privatize proposals. As the L.A. Times reported:

Leading Democrats immediately took exception to Bush's remarks.

The president's "controversial healthcare tax proposals would not be a responsible path to take," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.). His panel has been stymied in a behind-the-scenes effort to reach a bipartisan compromise on renewal legislation.

Said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.): "Once again, the president's solution is to put everyone at the mercy of private insurers."

A standoff between the White House and the Democratic-led Congress could affect the future of the program, which is already short of funds in some states. Instead of the multi-year extension that all sides agree would be desirable, a stalemate in Washington would probably result in an extension that lasts a year or two.

Democrats have wanted to use the reauthorization as a springboard to provide coverage for most of the estimated 9 million children who are uninsured -- a step toward providing coverage for everyone in the United States.

Democrats seeking universal health care, and their presidential candidates, should pay more attention to this SCHIP issue for two reasons: it affects the health of millions of uninsured children, and it's a dry-run for "swift-boating" all the proposed expanded health-care plans offered by Democratic candidates.

If you want to make a difference on SCHIP and expand coverage to kids who qualify for it, you can reach your Congressman or Senator through an email alert provided by Families USA.

Progressives and Democrats, who showed their muscle in defeating President Bush's Social Security privatization schemes in 2005, need to band together again to protect this important program so vital to children's health.

Update: Much of the proposed expansion of the SCHIP program would come from raising taxes on tobacco. This is a pragmatic proposal that improves health in several ways: potentially discouraging smokers from using more cigarettes and, of course, helping provide eligible children the health-care they need while saving taxpayers money in late-stage care in emergency rooms. In mid-June, Sen. Max Baucus announced that the Senate Finance Committee he chairs was likely to pass such a provision, which no doubt spurred the White House and its pro-corporate alllies into action last week to squelch it by shouting "socialized medicine!". Here's how Medical News Today summarized the politics of the issue about two weeks ago:

The Senate Finance Committee by the end of June will mark up a bill that would reauthorize and expand SCHIP, according to committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.), CongressDaily reports. Baucus said he met on Monday with committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to discuss providing as much as $50 billion to reauthorize and expand the program. He also plans to discuss the issue with lawmakers on Wednesday.

A tobacco tax increase "is believed to be the most likely option on the table to fund SCHIP," CongressDaily reports. Medicare is another potential funding source, particularly payments to Medicare Advantage plans, home health providers and durable medical equipment providers. Baucus said he is unsure whether he and Grassley will be able to find $50 billion in offsets to pay for the SCHIP reauthorization and expansion.

CongressDaily reports that the "high end" of a tobacco tax increase -- 61 cents -- would offset $35 billion. Grassley on Monday said that he has reservations about increasing the federal tobacco tax because of its potential impact on businesses but added that he might support an increase to offset SCHIP spending. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said, "The appetite for covering children is great. The appetite for paying for the coverage is less great" (Edney/Johnson, CongressDaily, 6/13).

Naturally, a common-sense proposal that could help pay for vital health-care for our nation's uninsured children aroused the White House's passionate -- and spurious -- opposition. Look for more rhetorical smoke-screens and right-wing blocking maneuvers in Congress in the weeks ahead.