Friday, October 5, 2007

The truth behind President Bush's veto of S-Chip

By DAVID AHRENS, Originally published in The Daily Telegram
Saturday, September 15, 2007

Insuring children who have no health care should be a political “no-brainer.” And it is, for nearly everyone but our president. Providing medical services to children prevents illness and reduces costs, and even for the most hard-hearted, it’s tough to blame children for being sick.

The federal government currently insures 56,000 kids in Wisconsin through an ill-named program pronounced “S-Chip” for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. But tens of thousands of kids are still uninsured, and the number is increasing. A strong bipartisan majority of senators and members of Congress have proposed to expand the program and make it available for middle-class families who are increasingly unable to afford insurance.

Who supports the proposal to expand the health insurance program for kids? About 80 percent of the public, based on survey results. Political powerhouses such as doctors, hospitals and drug companies all support it. Most Republicans support it too. Why does the President Bush oppose it?

He says it’s because the plan costs too much despite the fact that it is tens of billions less than the Medicare drug benefit he supported.

The real reason may have little to do with the merits of the health plan itself. Bush’s strong opposition could be linked to the 61-cent cigarette tax hike slated to fund the program. This increase would raise the billions of dollars needed to keep this successful program alive past its expiration date of Sept. 30 and also cover millions more kids. More than 100,000 kids in Wisconsin would have access to health care under the new law.

Bush’s opposition to the cigarette tax increase is not a surprise to those who have followed his policies since he first ran for office. In both small ways and large, this administration has been a loyal supporter of Big Tobacco.

Indeed, Bush’s ties to the tobacco industry were formed before he arrived in Washington. His campaign manager during both runs for Texas governor was the main lobbyist for Philip Morris in Texas — Karl Rove. As governor, Bush gave the tobacco Industry everything it wanted.

To his credit, Bush did not hide his loyalty to an industry that would become the number one contributor to the Republican Party in the 2000 election. In his first campaign for president, he publicly promised the industry that he would oppose all cigarette tax increases and would end the Justice Department lawsuit for $150 billion in damages as well as make other law changes to make it difficult to sue the industry.

And he kept his word.

In one of his first official acts, Bush promoted Karl Rove from Philip Morris’ lobbyist to White House senior advisor. Immediately after his inaugural, the work for the industry began. South Korea and Thailand were pressured to drop their new tariffs on U.S. cigarettes.

Bush found it politically difficult to shut down the U.S. lawsuit against the tobacco giants. So instead, after the tobacco industry was found guilty as charged, the Justice Department attorneys asked the judge to cut the penalty by over 90 percent!

Two months ago, the fired U.S. Surgeon General, Richard Carmona, reported to Congress that he was repeatedly pressured by the White House to “soften” and then delay his report on the health effects of secondhand smoke.

Most recently, his chief of the FDA said he opposes a bill requiring his agency to oversee tobacco products. This is an odd policy choice because, after all, they regulate Snickers but not Marlboros.

While Bush may appear to be at worst an uncompassionate conservative or at best politically deaf in opposing access to health care for all kids, it is likely that the real reason has nothing to do with kids or even health care. It has everything to do with a political system that rents allegiance for easy money and is addicted to tobacco’s billions.

David Ahrens is an employee of the University of Wisconsin Paul P. Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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