The passage yesterday of a sweeping expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) in the House sets up a major challenge for progressives as Congress faces the likelihood of a presidential veto. Will activists and concerned citizens be able to overcome the administration's spin campaign and mobilize enough votes to overcome the President's bull-headed resistance to helping uninsured kids? As The Washington Post reports today:
The legislation would launch the most significant growth in federal health care in a decade, and Democrats hope it will fortify their members as they head home soon for the summer recess amid voter perceptions that they have accomplished little since taking control of Congress.
"This is the children's hour," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared last night. "We are able to meet our moral obligation to our children."
The 225 to 204 vote in the House -- largely along party lines -- came after hours of delaying tactics, strident rhetoric and trench warfare from Republicans who called the bill the first step toward "socialized medicine," financed by an unfair tobacco tax increase and cuts for managed-care companies in Medicare.
But in the end, the Democrats had weapons that were just too powerful -- a promise to insure 5 million more children who otherwise would have no access to health care, adding to the 6 million children [a year] already covered -- and the backing of Republican and Democratic governors, the American Medical Association, AARP, the March of Dimes, the Catholic Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and even cyclist Lance Armstrong. And the prospects are good in the Senate, where a key Republican, Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), said, "It's difficult for me to understand how anyone wouldn't want to do this."
But Bush opposes such a major expansion of the program. In an interview with The Washington Post last month, he said, "When you expand eligibility . . . you're really beginning to open up an avenue for people to switch from private insurance to the government."
The House bill would enlarge the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, by $47 billion over five years to provide coverage to the additional 5 million children.
Meanwhile, Republicans and the White House are raising false alarms about government-owned health care and an expensive give-away to middle-class kids.
Yet the folks who used lies and distortions to get us into the Iraq war are now using the same techniques to convince members of Congress they shouldn't vote for expanding this vital program that serves the children of the working poor. The Senate is expected to follow the House and vote for more modest legislation this week. But as I pointed out in an article earlier this week, packed with web links, for In These Times:
The first battle in the war over universal health care has begun, with the Bush administration and its right-wing allies targeting bipartisan legislation to expand and reauthorize the under-funded State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). They're doing so with a slick campaign comprised of lies, distortions and sloganeering that derides the proposed bills as paving the way for socialized medicine.
This blitzkrieg against uninsured kids should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats seeking major health care reforms. If President Bush and his spokesmen can tell the American public that, say, we invaded Iraq to stop a potential nuclear attack by Saddam, what's to prevent them from fabricating falsehoods about a well-regarded program that currently provides coverage each month to 4 million low-income children--or bills that aim to reach about half of the nine million still-uninsured kids?
Among the major lies and distortions experts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and other advocates challenge are these:
Starting in late June, the Secretary of HHS, Michael Leavitt, joined by columnist Robert Novak and other attack dogs, began pushing claims that the proposed SCHIP expansion would be a giveaway to well-to-do kids and adults, plus become what Leavitt called a "Washington-run, government-owned plan." Leavitt conveniently overlooked Bush's flip-flop on the issue: Bush himself promised at the 2004 Republican convention to use the SCHIP program to expand coverage to millions of kids, and it was Bush's HHS that had granted waivers that allowed states to extend SCHIP to low-income parents and adults. HHS also released a dubious study in June claiming that less than 700,000 uninsured children fall below 200 percent of the poverty line, making them eligible for SCHIP or Medicaid, compared to six million in the most reputable previous research. Novak added to the statistical sophistry by claiming, "An estimated 71 percent of all American children in families of four making as much as $82,000 a year would become eligible, with states also continuing present coverage of adults under SCHIP."
That spin conjures up images of $80,000-a-year yuppies lounging in front of their high-definition TVs, drinking cocktails while their healthy children frolic in the backyard--all of them covered by SCHIP at your expense. Actually, the proposed Senate reform bill would lead to cutbacks in coverage for poor parents and childless adults (less than 10 percent of current recipients), and would overwhelmingly serve uninsured children whose families make no more than twice the poverty level of roughly $20,000 for a family of four, and often far less, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
In fact, the proposed expanded SCHIP program would primarily reach uninsured kids who are already eligible for either SCHIP or the even more restrictive Medicaid program. Indeed, currently nine out of ten of those now enrolled in SCHIP are in families that earn below 200 percent of the poverty line. SCHIP was established in 1997 to cover those low-income, uninsured kids who weren't eligible for Medicaid but whose families typically earn up to twice the poverty level. (The administration concocted its $82,000 figure because New York State said it might cover children in families that are four times the poverty level, but the Senate bill cuts sharply the federal matching grant to any state that raise the eligibility above 300 percent of the poverty level after the law's passed.)
Moreover, the current program reimburses children and poor families for care delivered by private insurers and doctors (it's not British-style medicine, God forbid). And the bipartisan Senate bill even has the backing of such health industry groups as America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the American Medical Association and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). (The health insurance lobby, though, opposes the House bill because it would cut the excessive payments to the private Medicare Advantage plans offered as an alternative to regular Medicare.)
But you wouldn't know any of that from listening to the baseless rhetoric of President Bush and his henchmen. Bush's proposed $5 billion increase in funding to the program would still leave nearly 20 states without sufficient funds to cover all those now enrolled. Bush opposes major expanded funding for SCHIP because he'd like to link the program with his dead-in-the-water proposals to offer tax credits or deductions to help people pay for high-cost, often exclusionary private insurance on their own.
You can read more about it in "The Bush Administration's New Target: Uninsured Kids," plus access informative news articles, press releases and policy reports. And to add your voice to the debate over SCHIP and tell your members of Congress to support expanding the SCHIP program, go to the Moveon.org and Families USA websites to let legislators know your views.
The challenge now is not primarily in passing some SCHIP legislation in Congress, but in building a groundswell of support large enough to overcome a threatened presidential veto. Here's your chance to help millions of uninsured kids get coverage, even if the President's attitude towards them is: drop dead.