June 3, 2008

Caring for children isn’t too expensive

EVERY DAY IN RHODE ISLAND, thousands of families wake up worried about health care. Will a child fall ill? Will costs rise — again?

For the people I’ve met over the last year, at my community dinners and events all over the state, health care is one of their most pressing concerns — and one of government’s biggest opportunities to do the right thing. Federal programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, that provide health-insurance coverage to those who might not otherwise have it are one of the best investments we can make in our country. But now, President Bush’s poor judgment and misplaced priorities have put one of those initiatives, and the millions of families it supports, in jeopardy.

Congress last week passed legislation that would renew and strengthen the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage to millions of American children whose families can’t afford private insurance. The $35 billion agreement, reached after months of negotiation and compromise on both sides of the aisle, will bring health care to 10 million children over the next five years, including up to 6,600 in Rhode Island.

Since its creation in 1997, the children’s health program, or SCHIP, has been vital for America’s working families. State-based programs like RIteCare rely on funds from SCHIP and other federal initiatives to help families pay for regular checkups, immunizations, prescriptions, and nutrition and other services. Congress’s action will add sufficient funding to reach about four million more children and will improve the program in other ways, from adding dental and mental-health care for all children covered (RIteCare already provides these services) to additional incentives for states to enroll more eligible children and improve the quality of care.

Rhode Island’s Sen. Jack Reed has been a champion for children’s health throughout his years in the Senate, and I’ve been proud to add my voice of support to his. But this week, our hard work — and that of so many senators and representatives who’ve fought to move this critical measure forward — was stopped in its tracks.

President Bush vetoed the children’s-health bill because, he says, it costs too much.

In other words, the same administration that’s spending more than $10 billion each month in Iraq, with no plan for ending the war and bringing our troops home, refused to spend $35 billion over the next five years — the equivalent of 3 1/2 months in Iraq — to provide millions of American children with affordable health care. Those are the wrong priorities for our children today, and the wrong priorities for the future of this nation.

Sadly, though, health coverage for America’s children isn’t the only thing the president has left on the back burner. K-12 and college education, food stamp and school lunch initiatives, affordable housing, home heating and energy, child care and vocational training are just a few of the federal programs that help working families the most — programs that President Bush has left without the funding they need.

Americans know that the costs of the war in Iraq — in our troops’ lives and health, and in missed opportunities to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country’s future — have become much too great to make sense.

President Bush’s veto of the children’s health-insurance program is a stunning rejection of one of America’s most deeply-held convictions: that every family, and every child, must have access to health care they can afford. America’s children deserve better, and that’s what we’ll keep fighting for.

Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, is the junior U.S. senator from Rhode Island.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse