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Heartless and clueless

Critics have called President Bush heartless for his veto last week of a compromise bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. True enough, but the president didn’t seem to be leading with his head either. In purporting to defend against a government takeover of the insurance industry, he blocked one of the best options for lifting families from wholly government-paid entitlements like Medicaid and into private insurance paid for in part by parents.

SCHIP isn’t welfare. In California, it is Healthy Families, the highly successful program that matches every state dollar with two from the federal government and entices parents to obtain and contribute to health coverage for their kids. Families that earn too much to qualify for Medi-Cal (the California incarnation of Medicaid) but not enough to buy insurance on their own use Healthy Families to get their kids off to a good start in life and correct any problems that, left untreated, would turn into a larger taxpayer burden down the road. Those parents also get into the habit of making health insurance part of their budget, which is exactly what opponents of government-provided healthcare want.

California opens Healthy Families to households that earn 2 1/2 times the federal poverty level, which comes to $51,625 a year for a family of four. The compromise Bush vetoed would have allowed three times the poverty level, or $61,950, and would have supplied $35 billion in new money over five years to cover rising costs and add more kids to the program. Bush claimed that wealthy families that can afford insurance without help would start applying for government assistance. He is offering less than one-seventh of what Congress asked.

That figure doesn’t cut it for California, where successful outreach has pulled thousands of new kids into the program and could target thousands more. At the level of funding Bush is willing to accept, those kids would be left without insurance -- or in programs that increase the burden on taxpayers -- nine months into next year. Every year after, coverage would lapse earlier and earlier. That would deepen California’s healthcare crisis even as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrats attempt to cut a deal to expand coverage.

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Congress will try to override the veto later this month. If a few more members get clued in to the wisdom of using government help to introduce families to private health insurance, they will do a world of good for thousands of children.


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