Putting kids first
Kerry wants to redirect the debate on values
By STEVE URBON, Standard-Times senior correspondent
The term "values," as it applied in last year's presidential election, boiled down mainly to two things: opposition to abortion and opposition to gay marriage. It worked in favor of President Bush.
Sen. John Kerry, the losing Democratic challenger, now wants to redirect the values debate to a new area favorable to Democrats: guaranteed health care for poor children called "Kids First."
"If you want to talk about values as a lot of these politicians would just throw it at you, then let's have a values test."
The test he proposes is this: "If you simply take the top 5 percent of the tax cut (for next year) and say you're going to do health care, you could cover health care for all 11 million children" who now are without any coverage at all, he told The Standard-Times editorial board in a visit last week.
"It would affect people of $300,000 in income and up," he said.
"Now, everybody I talk to at that level of income, sitting down to dinner or whatever, says, You know, this tax cut isn't going to do anything to change what I invest in. It's going to give me more disposable income to go out and buy more or do something. But it's not going to change my fundamentals of investing. The bottom line is, we can't afford it and it's the wrong moral choice."
"I'm taking part of the health care plan I proposed to the country last in the course of the campaign. I'm just saying if we can't start with kids, where can we start?"
Asked whether the Bush White House would even allow a vote in Congress on such a concept, Sen. Kerry said, flatly, "No."
"What I'm doing is putting a stake in the ground around which we can organize and draw a clear values distinction."
He said the message is being well-received. "In Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago we took the health care thing on the road and 3,000 people came out on a Saturday morning. Twelve hundred in Seattle."
But don't the states and federal government already provide health care for children living in poverty, or something close to it? Isn't there something called CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program?
There is, but Sen. Kerry said it's not working well enough, missing millions of children.
"The CHIP program is actually an expansion of Medicaid, and Medicaid goes up to 100 percent of poverty. Fifty percent is shared by the states, approximately. Above that, states have been given an incentive through the CHIP program to try expand health care to children. That's what our theory was, help give them incentive to cover more kids. And they've expanded. There has been growth in the number of kids covered up until last year.
"But this year the Bush administration is actually cutting Medicaid and it will cut available funds for children to have health care," he said.
Another problem with CHIP is that above the poverty level, some states provide significant help while others do not. While Massachusetts might extend care to those families earning as much as the poverty level of $15,670, others are "terrible," said Sen. Kerry.
He added that many states do an inadequate job of enrolling eligible children, partly because of the bureaucracy.
"What I propose to do is take over Medicaid children from the states. I will cover kids up to 100 percent, $15,670 of income. The deal with the states is if I agree to take over 100 percent, they take over from there.
"In exchange we ask states to take a lesser burden and cover kids from 100 percent up to 300 percent of poverty. That's how we get every kid covered. And it's a net plus to the states of $6 billion. So every state in country makes out with several hundred million dollars and it's an incentive for governors to do it," he said.
"The reason the states will love this is that, No. 1, they hate the bureaucracy, and No. 2, they don't do it well. They don't enroll the kids. There's a huge burden to enrollment.
"In my program, there's automatic enrollment. You go to school, you've got health insurance. You go to day care, child care, you've got health insurance. You're covered. So any provider will know immediately they don't have to wrestle with 'This kid doesn't have health care. We can't take him to the hospital,' " Sen. Kerry said.
"You have no idea of how many family physicians I talk to around the country who tell me of kids they don't see until they're 12 years old, and the kid has an earache perpetually in school and the kid winds up with a learning disability because they just didn't get a visit to the doctor. These are real stories."
He said he put his Kids First plan out in three million e-mails "and we got 20,000 phone calls leaving a message as to why it is important."
But Sen. Kerry said he has no expectation that his plan will advance with the GOP in control of Congress and the White House.
He's even having trouble getting backing from Republican governors, he said.
"I've called (New York Gov. George) Pataki. I've called (California Gov. Arnold) Schwartzenegger. I've called these guys and I say look, here's a choice, and Arnold says, no, we can't change taxes."
"They're just scared. The Holy Grail of the Republican Party is a tax cut, whether it makes sense or doesn't. It's the single opinion of their politics now."
This story appeared on Page B1 of The Standard-Times on June 5, 2005