Sick Priorities

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Forty-seven million Americans don't have health insurance, and 8.7 million of them are children according to just-released census data. The numbers signal a disturbing trend: the number of uninsured are rising (even as the median income rises) and still President Bush is vocal in his opposition to expanding a program that could extend insurance to 5 to 6 million children, by levying higher taxes on tobacco products. Ah, the great moral quandary: healthy kids or healthy profit margins for Big Tobacco?

The State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) has been extending coverage to uninsured kids since 1998 with great success and states are clamoring for its expansion. You'd think that giving more kids access to such luxuries as doctors and medicine would be something even the most cynical of lawmakers could line up behind, but no. Some, including the President, are crying "won't somebody think of the tobacco companies and the HMO's -- whither their enormous profit margins?"

Despite a strong mandate from Congress to expand funding to SCHIP, and wide public support for the program, President Bush is still threatening a veto, even as these census numbers come out:

Apparently unmoved, Bush issued a statement Tuesday criticizing the House and Senate proposals because they'd be funded by stiff increases in taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. He said the taxes would undermine the economy. The president also has said that both bills would lead people who can afford private coverage to opt for cheaper government coverage through SCHIP.

Millions of Americans with access to affordable insurance! Quelle horreur! I feel pretty confident in saying that most parents aren't withholding health care from their children in search of a bargain, but then poor kids and their families didn't give the $262,270 that the tobacco industry has given President Bush in the last eight years so perhaps their economic well-being is of less concern.

As to the suggestion that "the economy" would be undermined by imposing a publicly supported 61-cent excise tax on tobacco products I would ask what precisely is the economic upside of having more and more of the workforce unable to access preventative care, and very likely to be driven into debt in the event that they must receive emergency medical attention.

Congress did the right thing in passing a funding increase for SCHIP, despite opposition from legislators whose campaign coffers are lined with Big Tobacco cash. These new census numbers point to the severity of the health insurance crisis we are facing: the President needs to stand up to the monied and powerful interests who oppose this legislation and look out for the 8.7 million kids who are growing up without health care in the richest nation on earth.