Deamonte Driver had a toothache. He was 12 years old. He had no insurance, and his mother couldn't afford the $80 to have the decayed tooth removed. He might have gotten it taken care of through Medicaid, but his mother couldn't find a dentist who accepted the low reimbursements. Instead, Deamonte got some minimal attention from an emergency room, his condition worsened and he died. Deamonte was one of 9 million children in the U.S. without health insurance.
Congress is considering bipartisan legislation that will cover poor children in the U.S.
The major obstacle? President Bush is vowing to veto the bill, even though Republican and Democratic senators reached bipartisan agreement on it. The bill adds $35 billion to the State Children's Health Insurance Program over the next five years by increasing federal taxes on cigarettes.
The conservative Heritage Foundation is against the tobacco tax to fund SCHIP, saying that it "disproportionately burdens low-income smokers" as well as "young adults." No mention is made of any adverse impact on Heritage-funder Altria Group, the cigarette giant formerly known as Philip Morris.
According to the American Association for Respiratory Care, with every 10 percent rise in the cigarette tax, youth smoking drops by 7 percent and overall smoking declines by 4 percent. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, says: "It is a public health good in and of itself and will save lives to increase the tobacco tax. Cigarettes kill and cigarettes provoke lung cancer, and every child and every [other] human being we can, by increasing the cigarette tax, stop from smoking or slow down from smoking is going to have a public health benefit, save taxpayers money from the cost of the effects of smoking and tobacco."
Two programs serve as the health safety net for poor and working-class children: Medicaid and SCHIP (pronounced "s-chip"). SCHIP is a federal grant program that allows states to provide health coverage to children who belong to working families earning too much to be eligible for Medicaid but not enough to afford private health insurance when their employers do not provide it. It's the SCHIP funding that is now being debated in Congress.
The Children's Defense Fund has published scores of stories similar to Deamonte's. Children like Devante Johnson of Houston. At 13, Devante was fighting advanced kidney cancer. His mother tried to renew his Medicaid coverage, but bureaucratic red tape tied up the process. By the time Devante got access to the care he needed, his fate was sealed. He died at the age of 14, in Bush's home state, only miles from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, one of the world's leading cancer treatment and research facilities.
With children's lives at stake, Edelman has no patience for political gamesmanship: "Why is this country, at this time, the richest in the world, arguing about how few or how many children they can serve? We ought to-this is a no-brainer. The American people want all of its children served. All children deserve health coverage, and I don't know why we're having such a hard time getting our president and our political leaders to get it, that children should have health insurance."
Republican Sen. Gordon Smith originally introduced the SCHIP budget resolution in the Senate. Unlike Bush, who is not up for re-election, Smith is defending his vulnerable Senate seat in 2008, in the blue state of Oregon. He, like other Republicans who are breaking with Bush on the war in Iraq, is sensitive to Bush's domestic policies. Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families just released a poll that says 91 percent of Americans support the expansion of SCHIP to cover more kids.
And the American people are willing to go much further. As demonstrated by the popularity of Michael Moore's latest blockbuster, "SiCKO," the public, across the political spectrum, is ready to fix the U.S. healthcare system. How many more children like Deamonte and Devante have to die before the politicians, all with great health insurance themselves, take action?
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 500 stations in North America.
© 2007 Amy Goodman; distributed by King Features Syndicate