Monday, October 29, 2007

Outrage Mounts Over GOP Smear Campaign Against Boy, 12, in Health Insurance Debate

For Voters Already Angry at Bush's Veto of a Bill to Expand the Popular State Child Health Insurance Program, Attack By the President's Hard-Line Allies On a 12-Year-Old Beneficiary of SCHIP is the Final Straw

Graeme Frost, a 12-year-old Maryland boy who depends on a popular health insurance program for children to pay for his treatment after being severely injured in a car accident, appears with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) on Capitol Hill September 29 to deliver the Democrats' response to President Bush's weekly radio address defending his veto of a bill to expand the program. Almost immediately afterward, the boy and his family became the targets of a vicious smear campaign by Republicans -- which, in turn, has triggered a massive public backlash against the GOP. (Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Skeeter Sanders

Who'da thunk it? Who would have thought that President Bush and his hard-core right-wing allies -- on Capitol Hill and beyond -- would be this cold-blooded?

For 10 months, the Republicans have frustrated the clearly expressed will of a solid 70 percent majority of the American people to end the unpopular war in Iraq by battling the Democrats in charge of Congress to a stalemate -- needlessly prolonging the war.

Now Bush's hard-line, right-wing allies have sunk to the lowest of the low by unleashing their propaganda attack dogs in a campaign of innuendo and false accusations reminiscent of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s.

This time, however, the "Bushnoids" didn't sicc the dogs on their Democratic rivals -- who can take the heat and dish out some heat of their own. And, for once, this latest GOP assault isn't about Iraq.

Instead, the target of the right-wing pit bulls was -- are you ready for this? -- a 12-year-old Maryland boy.

That's right. A child!

The GOP attack machine sought to mow down a little boy -- who's too young to understand what he could possibly have done wrong to deserve such treatment -- about a purely domestic issue, one in which this boy has a vital self-interest: Health insurance for children.

Already confronted with voters' mounting anger over Bush's veto of a bipartisan bill to expand a popular children's health insurance program -- and his threat to veto a revised version of it -- unscrupulous GOP operatives chose to go after 12-year-old Graeme Frost, a beneficiary of the program who made an emotional plea before a national radio audience for the bill to become law.

Graeme is dependent on the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to pay for treatments of severe head injuries that he and his younger sister sustained in a car accident. Democrats had enlisted his parents, Halsey and Bonnie Frost of Baltimore, to have the boy deliver the party's official response to Bush’s weekly radio address on September 29, in which the president defended his veto of the SCHIP bill.

Ugly Accusations Against the Frost Family That Prove to be False

Almost immediately, congressional Republicans struck back, accusing Democrats of exploiting the boy to score political points. But it didn't stop there. Conservative bloggers sought to dig up dirt on the Frosts by searching through their financial records and claimed that the family made too much money to qualify for SCHIP.

Other GOP operatives gave talking points to conservative radio talk-show hosts to discredit the family.

They accused Graeme’s father, Halsey, a self-employed woodworker, of choosing not to provide insurance for his wife and children. They pointed out that Graeme attends an expensive private school. They even claimed that the Frosts’ home had undergone an extensive renovation, raising its market value to over $400,000.

So nasty were the right-wing smears against the Frosts that one critic went so far as to send a derogatory e-mail to the family that read in part: “Lie down with dogs, and expect to get fleas.”

The Frosts Aren't Poor -- But They're Far From Rich, Either

On the surface, the Frosts certainly don't appear to fit the stereotype of a poor, low-income family. The Frosts do own commercial properties -- worth about $160,000 -- that provides them with rental income.

But upon closer examination, the Frosts are hardly living the good life. Their home, located in the working-class Butcher's Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, was purchased in 1990 for $55,000 and is now worth about $260,000, according to records kept by the city assessor's office -- a far cry from the $400,000 figure claimed by GOP activists.

Halsey Frost, although self-employed, no longer owns his own welding and woodworking business, as Republicans claim he does. In fact, his company went out of business in 1999.

Today, he works only intermittently -- and has suffered a sharp decline in income as a result of the worsening recession in home construction triggered by the sub-prime mortgage meltdown and subsequent credit crunch.

His wife, Bonnie, works only part-time -- without health insurance -- at a company that, ironically, provides services to publishers of medical journals.

And Graeme attends the private school only because he won a scholarship -- without which the Frosts could not have afforded to pay the school's tuition.

Frosts Could Not Obtain Private Health Insurance

Maryland's SCHIP program requires a family of six to earn less than $55,220 a year for its children to qualify. The Frosts' annual income is about $45,000, well within the program's eligibility requirements (The state does not require SCHIP applicants to list their assets, which do not affect eligibility).

In an interview with The New York Times, the Frosts said they had applied to three private insurance companies for health coverage and all three turned them down because of "pre-existing" medical conditions -- specifically, Graeme's head injuries.

After Bush's veto of the bill to expand SCHIP, the Frosts decided that it was time to speak out. “We stood up in the first place because SCHIP really helped our family and we wanted to help other families,” Bonnie Frost told The Times. “We work hard, we’re honest, we pay our taxes. There are hard-working families that really need affordable health insurance.”

Outraged by the GOP attacks on the Frosts, Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), sharply defended the family as being precisely the type of hard-working-but-financially-stressed Americans that the program was intended to help -- families whose incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid, but too low to afford private insurance.

Pelosi denounced the smears against Graeme Frost as morally bankrupt. "I think it's really a sad statement about how bankrupt some of these people are in their arguments against SCHIP that they would attack a 12-year-old boy,” she said.

News of the GOP's attacks on the Frosts -- and the subsequent revelation of the truth about the family's financial condition -- has triggered a massive public outcry against the Republicans, forcing them to call off the dogs.

And just in the nick of time, too: Republican leaders on Capitol Hill were about to unleash "Phase 2" of their propaganda blitz against Graeme, citing the 12-year-old and his family as evidence that "Democrats have over-expanded the health program to include families wealthy enough to afford private insurance," according to The Times.

Polls Show Most Americans Back Children's Health Insurance

That Bush is defying public opinion on expanding SCHIP is made quite evident from the latest round of opinion polls. Just over 51 percent of Americans -- while not specifically citing SCHIP itself -- said they were willing to pay higher taxes to ensure that all children have health insurance, according to a Zogby International poll.

On the broader issue of health insurance for all Americans, slightly more than half (53 percent) believe the federal government should ensure that all Americans have health insurance coverage, the Zogby poll finds. Not surprisingly, that support soars to 76 percent among Americans earning less than $25,000 a year.

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans trust Democrats to handle the SCHIP issue more than Bush, but agree with the president that government aid should be targeted to low-income families.

A 52 percent majority agrees with Bush that most SCHIP benefits should go to children in families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level — about $41,000 for a family of four -- with only 40 percent agreeing that benefits should go to families earning up to $62,000, as the bipartisan SCHIP bill would allow.

The USA Today/Gallup poll results do not, however, take into account the situation of families such as the Frosts, who make more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, but who still cannot obtain private insurance -- either because of pre-existing conditions or because they cannot pay the increasingly unaffordable premiums that most private insurers are charging.

Nor is the health insurance crisis any longer limited to individuals and families: A growing number of employers -- small and large businesses alike -- are also finding it increasingly difficult to afford the soaring cost of health insurance, as evidenced by the nation's Big Three automakers' efforts to shed the financial burden of of their employees and retirees' health insurance programs.

$Billions For War, But None For Kids' Health? What's Wrong With This Picture?

But it might be too little, too late to stop the anti-Republican backlash. Already, President Bush has further alienated the public by accusing Democratic lawmakers on Friday of "wasting time" by passing a second, slightly revised bill to expand SCHIP -- and vowing to veto the new bill as well.

The president stubbornly insists that the expansion cost no more than $5 billion -- a figure that Democrats and moderate Republicans alike on Capitol Hill have firmly rejected as "woefully inadequate" and does not even begin to address the runaway cost of children's health care.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the leading Senate Republican sponsor of the SCHIP bill, insists that $35 billion is required at the bare minimum for SCHIP to be effective. For his part, Democratic national chairman Howard Dean on Saturday accused Republicans of wanting "to stay in Iraq and deny our kids health care."

In the party's weekly radio address, Dean said Republicans "support significant borrowing" to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "but won't support increasing spending for children's health."

Bush last Monday asked for an additional $46 billion to continue the war in Iraq and fighting in Afghanistan -- raising total war spending for the 2008 fiscal year -- which began on October 1 -- to $196.4 billion.

"America cannot afford four more years of a president who borrows for the war and denies health insurance for our kids," argued Dean.

However Unpalatable, Democrats Could Link SCHIP to Iraq War-Funding Bill

Bush appears determined to have his way on SCHIP funding. But the Constitution gives Congress exclusive authority to control the federal purse -- and it's high time, in this blogger's opinion, for Congress to exercise that authority.

As much as this blogger personally dislikes the idea, the Democrats do have a "trump card" to force the president to sign SCHIP into law: They can turn the tables on Bush by attaching SCHIP to the Iraq war-funding bill that the president has been pushing Congress hard to pass -- and then dare him to veto it.

SCHIP has more than enough bipartisan support in the Senate to override a Bush veto, so there shouldn't be a problem with overcoming an almost-certain GOP filibuster against linking SCHIP to the war-funding bill in the upper chamber.

By tying SCHIP to the Iraq war-funding bill (which would, admittedly, require anti-war Democrats to hold their noses), Bush would be faced with a Hobson's choice: Either let SCHIP become law or embarass himself by vetoing further funding for his own war in Iraq.

I know that this strategy stinks for those who want our troops brought home, but consider the alternative: A filibuster against further Iraq war funding in the Senate -- which no Democrat is willing to launch. Under those circumstances, linking SCHIP to the Iraq war-funding bill may be the only way to get SCHIP renewed and expanded.

In the meantime, congressional Republicans have a Hobson's choice of their own: Convince Bush to allow SCHIP to become law -- or face a relentless barrage of advertisements by the Democrats and by independent groups such as accusing the GOP of favoring billions of dollars for the war, but not a dime for children's health.

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Volume II, Number 54
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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