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, Republicans will join in overriding that veto. The question is whether 2/3 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 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 two times the poverty line. 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 the 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 also say the main issue is an ideological one. This bill, the president suggests, "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 Rudi Giuliani burlesques as "socialized medicine."
Again, this wouldn't be so bad were it true. There is no evidence that recipients of government sponsored health care now – those on Medicare and Medicaid, Veteran's Health Care, federal and state government employee's insurance – are less happy than those with private insurance. And we must move 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 multi-billion dollar insurance industry hasn't found a way to profit from providing health care to these poor children. That's why the private health insurance lobby, and the American Medical Association and Big Pharma, the drug company lobby are all supporting – not opposing the bill. 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. The Bible, as well as other religious traditions, teaches us to measure ourselves by how we treat the "least of these." Suffer the children to 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 wage an ideological argument. The insurance companies are enjoying record profits. It's the children who are at risk and need the care.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights leader and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.