It Saves Money and Makes Kids Healthy -- What's the Problem?

Nine million children go without health insurance in this country. A broad bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress, including such rock-ribbed conservatives as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, voted to expand the children's health-care program to cover about half of those. Last week, President Bush vetoed the bill. In the Senate, enough Republicans will join Democrats to override that veto. The question is whether two-thirds support can be found in the House of Representatives. In partisan fervor, the Republican leadership has vowed to stand with the president.

There is little disagreement about basic facts. The president and conservative and liberal senators agree that the program works. Governors of both parties are lobbying for its expansion. This isn't about reckless spending; the expansion is paid for by an increase in taxes on cigarettes. All agree that insured children are healthier. And that saves money, reducing preventable diseases, lowering the cost for emergency-room services that result when treatments are put off, and reducing the risk of infection in other children.

So why veto the bill? President Bush warns that the expansion of the program would cover middle-income families. Given the cost of health care and the pressures on working families, it isn't clear what would be wrong with that. But in any case, it isn't true.

The bill would allow states to cover children of the near poor -- those who make up to twice the amount considered a poverty-level income. Experts say this will max out at about $41,000 for a family of four, with states having the discretion of whether to get to that limit, and the federal government able to stop states from going above it. Does anyone other than this president born of privilege have any doubt that families raising two children on $40,000 a year will struggle with health-care costs?

White House spokespeople say the main issue is an ideological one. This bill, the president charges, "is an incremental step toward the goal of government-run health care for every American." It's all part of a plot to move by small steps to what Rudy Giuliani burlesques as "socialized medicine."

Again, this wouldn't be so bad if it were true. There is no evidence that current recipients of government-sponsored health care -- those on Medicare and Medicaid, veterans health care, federal and state government employees insurance -- are less happy than those with private insurance. And with 44 million going without health insurance, this country must make a commitment to universal health care, giving everyone a choice of private insurance or a public program. But again, the president's claim is not true.

The fact is, as Harold Meyerson has noted, the multibillion-dollar insurance industry hasn't found a way to profit from providing health care to these poor children. That's why they don't have insurance. And that's why the private health insurance lobby, the American Medical Association and Big Pharma, the drug company lobby, are all supporting -- not opposing -- the bill. These are not exactly champions of "socialized medicine." The president is stiffing needy children to give private insurance companies customers they don't want.

This isn't partisan or ideological; it is moral. Most religious traditions tell us that, as the Bible says, we can only measure ourselves by how we treat the "least of these." Let the children come unto me, Christ taught.

It is America's shame that one-fifth of all children in this rich nation are raised in poverty. It is simply inexcusable that vulnerable children should be deprived of health care to make an ideological point. The insurance companies are enjoying record profits. The children are at risk and need the care.

(c) Copyright 2007 Sun-Times News Group

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