Child Watch® Column: "Powerful Special Interests Should Not Trump Children's Health Needs"

Release Date: December 18, 2009

Marian Wright Edelman

A theologian friend shared the story of taking her car to a Jiffy Lube for servicing. Not having anything to read, she picked up a manual on the coffee table about boating. A chapter on the rules for what happens when boats encounter one another on the open sea described two kinds of craft: burdened and privileged. The craft with power that can accelerate and push its way through the waves, change direction, and stop on demand is the burdened one. The craft dependent on the forces of nature, wind, tide, and human effort to keep going is the privileged craft. Since powerful boats can make their way forward under their own power, they are burdened with responsibility to give the right of way to the powerless or privileged vessels dependent on the vagaries of the tide, wind, and weather. "Who wrote this thing?" she asked. "Billy Graham? Mother Teresa? What's going on in our land when the New Jersey State Department of Transportation knows that the powerful must give way if the powerless are to make safe harbor and the government of the United States and the Church of Jesus Christ and other people of God are having trouble with the concept?"

In the current debate on national health reform that's exactly what is happening. The very fragile boat of children has been submerged and buffeted in our political process, huge waves and the wake of the burdened boats – powerful insurance and drug companies and lobbyists for other wealthy organized constituencies who make big campaign contributions and can mount a strong constituent voice of voters. The controversy-seeking media has ignored the huge looming injustice from the proposed abolition of the successful and cost effective Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), enacted in 1997 with the bipartisan leadership of Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, in the House bill and its weakening in the Senate Finance Committee bill. That millions of children will be worse off if CHIP is abolished or weakened has been drowned out by the strident Tea Party, anti-immigrant and abortion foes. 

The invisibility of children means up to 10 million children may have the most to lose from national health reform. Unlike seniors and veterans, the House of Representatives requires children to give up CHIP, a federal program that works, in 2013 and go immediately into an untested, more costly health insurance exchange driven by insurance companies. Children will lack the cost sharing and benefit protections they have now in CHIP and Medicaid forcing their parents to pay more for less. And research shows that even the smallest premiums and co-pays can be an impediment to getting children in low income families timely health care. The proposed weakening of CHIP will result in fewer children getting health coverage and more relying on costlier emergency hospitalizations with states and localities and taxpayers having to pay the tab.

The solution: Keep CHIP until 2019 as Senator Jay Rockefeller (WV) proposed and the Senate Finance Committee voted to do, until we can determine whether the untested and costlier exchange is a safe and better place for children. Equally important is funding and improving CHIP until 2019 as Senator Bob Casey (PA) has proposed. The Casey Amendment would guarantee CHIP coverage for children in families up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($55, 120 for a family of four), establishing a minimal national health safety net for children wherever they live that ensures them the same comprehensive benefits Medicaid eligible children get. Senator Casey also would simplify state bureaucracies that now deny more than two out of three of the currently uninsured children who are eligible for CHIP and Medicaid urgently needed health coverage. States also would get a greatly increased federal match to help ensure children health coverage. 

A new joint poll by Lake Research and Hart Associates shows the American people strongly oppose the abolition of CHIP and strongly support the child health reforms in the Casey Amendment which is now co-sponsored by Senators Durbin (IL), Schumer and Gillibrand (NY), Whitehouse and Reed (RI), Klobuchar and Franken (MN), Boxer (CA), and Akaka (HI).  Our leaders should listen to their people. As it now appears there may be no more amendments on the Senate floor, it is imperative that the Casey Amendment provisions be included in the Manager's Amendment and in final health reform legislation.

If there is one thing our rich nation, which claims to believe that every individual deserves a fair playing field, should be able to agree on it is that children, the most privileged in God's kingdom, as every major faith affirms, should be protected. In this holy season how could political leaders ignore this responsibility and leave millions of children worse off after health reform than they are today?