Leader Blues

Saturday, October 20, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Boozman hurts kids

Stung by the defections from the Republican Party for its spendthrift and reckless ways on his watch, President Bush picked a fine time to suddenly get frugal: when the health of children is at stake. Somehow, we do not think his veto of the expansion of the children’s health insurance program, better known as SCHIP, will bring back the disaffected fiscal conservatives.

He should have listened to the self-proclaimed “most conservative governor in Arkansas history,” Mike Huckabee, who likes the program and tried in Arkansas to expand the concept to give government health coverage to working adults as well as children. Huckabee was not admirably forthright on the issue, ducking the question of whether he would have signed or vetoed the bill if he were president, but he indicated frustration with the administration’s acting so beggarly on funding children’s health. That is more than what the other GOP presidential candidates did.

And more than our Republican congressman from Arkansas did. Rep. John Boozman from northwest Arkansas stuck with the president, as he always does no matter how it affects his constituency. He alone in the six-member Arkansas delegation voted against the SCHIP expansion and then Thursday voted to uphold the president’s veto. Almost a third of Republicans in Congress bucked the president on expanding a program that was one of the Republican Congress’s proudest achievements in the late 1990s. It was still a little short in the House of Representatives of the two-thirds vote needed to override Bush’s veto.

The bill, crafted with key Republican help, notably Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, would increase spending on SCHIP by $35 billion over five years, covering 4 million children who now are uninsured, by adding a stiff tax on cigarettes and tobacco products. Some 50,000 of those children, maybe more, live in Arkansas. Boozman lives in one of the most affluent areas of Arkansas, but we suspect that he would not have to travel many blocks from his home to find children who desperately need the law.

SCHIP and the Medicaid program from which it derived provide health insurance to the very poorest Americans. SCHIP, like the ArKids First program fathered by Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe (he sponsored it as a state senator in 1997), covers children in families up to 200 percent of the poverty line, which is about $40,000 for a family of four.

Unless a parent works for a company that provides group coverage, those families rarely have health insurance because the premiums are simply unaffordable. It is unaffordable, too, for millions of families with marginal middle incomes. They form the largest portion of the 47 million Americans who have no public or private insurance.

Boozman parroted the standard arguments for blocking coverage for children of families with marginal incomes: (1) The government should cover only very, very poor children, not those of struggling working families. (2) Some illegal immigrants’ children might benefit. (3) Lots of parents might benefit, too. (4) It would be the beginning of “socialized medicine,” the scare term that disappeared after the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s.

His stand is ironic because his late brother, Fay, a conservative ideologue, had softened on universal health insurance after Huckabee made him state health director. Dr. Boozman and Huckabee announced a goal of guaranteeing medical coverage for every single Arkansan before they left office. Fay died in a farm accident and Huckabee left office before the goal was realized.

As for the fear that it would lead to the government covering more adults as well, Boozman should remember that it was his political ally, Huckabee, who fathered the program to extend government-subsidized health care to working families, including adults.

Huckabee got the Bush administration last year to grant a waiver that allows Arkansas businesses, big and small, to sign up their low-wage employees and families for Medicaid, which obliges the federal government to pay for three-fourths of their health-care costs. The businesses or the employees would bear the other fourth. If that is not socialized medicine, how does it differ from SCHIP?

Huckabee still brags (when he’s not in front of right-wing audiences) that the government-paid health programs that he innovated as governor are his proudest achievements.

The SCHIP bill specifically prohibited benefits for the children of illegal aliens, but illegals are now the party’s best political lightning rod and best way of arousing enmity for the program.

The bill had a proviso assuring coverage for citizen children whose parents just never got a birth certificate. And, yes, there are still hundreds of thousands of poor children just like that.

The Republican foes said the proviso might be used by illegal immigrants to get medical attention for their children. But it makes no difference in the end what this or any other bill says; the U. S. Constitution prohibits the government from offering any benefit to one class and excluding others, including non-citizens. Every resident on American shores is guaranteed equal protection of the laws.

A bipartisan group is going to craft new wording to address the spurious arguments of people like Boozman. For the sake of our children and his neighbors, we hope the new language gives Boozman and the necessary dozen of his colleagues the cover to do the right thing.