Heal the Madness

It is crazy to cut taxes for the wealthy, as George W. Bush wants to do, when the US is in a worldwide war on terrorism and an open-ended occupation of Iraq that already costs an estimated $3.8 billion a month. At the same time an estimated 44 million Americans must go without health insurance and governors and mayors are forced to cut back or eliminate health clinics, education and other programs.

The states are struggling to close budget gaps totalling nearly $100 billion while they try to implement homeland security guidelines, but Bush last February told the governors not to expect any help from Washington. Instead he is still trying to browbeat Congress into approving at least a $550 billion tax cut despite a Senate commitment to throw no more than $350 billion into the briar patch. Meanwhile the governor of Missouri has ordered every third light bulb unscrewed, Oklahoma teachers are doubling as janitors, lunchroom cooks and bus drivers after support staffs were decimated and half a million poor Texans will be shoved off Medicaid and other health coverage so the GOP won't have to raise taxes.

Ohio plans to cut 50,000 people from health coverage, which would be the largest increase of uninsured Ohioans in history, but in Texas, where the Legislature faces a deficit of nearly $10 billion over the next two years, Republican leaders, in charge the statehouse for the first time since Reconstruction, rule out any tax increases. Instead it appears that radical cuts in health care will shove 441,000 Texans off Medicaid rolls, including 80,000 aged and/or disabled persons and more than 350,000 children and pregnant women. In addition, more than 488,000 Medicaid clients and 145,000 poor families would lose all prescription drug benefits. On top of that, at least 170,000 kids will lose coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which covers children of families that have too much income for Medicaid. Texas already ranks first in the number of children without medical coverage and the Legislature is drawing up new rules to make it harder for families who are eligible for the assistance to qualify.

"We shouldn't be supporting families who are making between $38,000 and $45,000 a year," state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, told the Austin American-Statesman. The state House plans to reduce eligibility for CHIP from 200% of the federal poverty level ($48,000 for a family of four) to 150% ($36,200 for the same family).

"We're going to lose a lot of kids from CHIP, but perhaps now their parents will go back to many of the private health insurance plans that they had before CHIP was available to them," Berman said, oblivious to the fact that those working-poor parents could not afford private insurance before and they will not be able to afford it in the future. Berman blithely assured the reporter that churches and clinics could help those who fall through the cracks of the state's social service network. Anyway, he might as well have added, they didn't vote for him.

During the roaring 1990s, 43 states, including Texas, cut their taxes. Many states passed laws that would make it difficult to raise taxes again. Now that the surpluses have dried up, the two largest areas of state spending, health care and education, are taking most of the cuts. Prisons also have come in for cuts, but even there the areas eliminated first are health care, education and rehabilitation.

In Nebraska, almost 25,000 poor mothers have lost health care. Tuition has risen 20% over the past two years and 1,000 University of Nebraska students have been told their financial aid is gone. Ranchers lost two of the state's three diagnostic veterinarians. The New York Times' Timothy Egan wrote that for Jonathan Bradley, disabled father of two in Omaha, the state's budget cuts mean he will be cut off from the drugs that keep him alive, since his wife's job as a paralegal does not provide health insurance but brings in just enough money to exclude the family from Medicaid coverage under the new limits.

In Washington State, after legislators said they would have to renege on a promise to raise the salary of home health care workers to $8.70 an hour from $7.86, the Senate majority leader, James West, a Republican, complained that the health care workers were "perpetual pathetics" who were always whining. In response, Sherry Beebe, who had cared for West's ailing mother, wrote the senator, "I was one of the workers who took care of your mom ... Stop being so selfish and think about where you would be if you had to care for your mom for almost no pay or benefits."

RIGHT WINGERS were gloating over the quick victory in Iraq, although wiser heads note that it is one thing to take Baghdad and quite another thing to keep it. The cracks in Bush's conquest already are beginning to appear, as fundamentalist Shi'ite Moslems push for an Islamic republic like the one across the border in Iran. Apparently it never occurred to White House war promoters that the Shi'ites, who comprise 60% of the population in Iraq, might opt for theocracy. That possibility certainly has occurred to the Sunni, Christian, Jewish, Kurdish and Turkish minorities in Iraq who now see a new oppressor in the form of Shi'ite ayatollahs.

But the economy will decide the next US election and that is where Dems need to focus. Despite Bush's exaggerated claims that his tax breaks would stimulate the economy, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (cbpp.org) found that more than half of all returns with small business income would get only $500 or less, and 22% of tax filers with small business income would get no tax cut at all. Moreover, by increasing the attractiveness of dividend-paying stocks relative to bonds and also by increasing long-term deficits, the dividend exclusion would likely raise long-term interest rates and raise the cost of borrowing for small businesses, which is more likely to kill a recovery than stimulate it.

Congress can help small businesses by providing health care for their employees. Double-digit increases in insurance premiums are causing many businesses to rethink the benefits. Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, a congressman from Cleveland, proposes to expand Medicare to cover the 44 million uninsured as well as those who are underinsured, or who are paying exorbitant rates for their health insurance. Under Kucinich's plan employers would pay a 7% payroll tax while income taxes would rise 2%. "Compare this with a trillion-dollar tax cut for the wealthy. We could put in its place a single government fund which pays all medical expenses and provides singular protection against illness," Kucinich says at his web site (www.kucinich.net).

Howard Dean also has made universal health care a priority, as he did when he was governor of Vermont, but he proposes an incremental approach that would guarantee coverage for children up to age 23. The federal government would assume responsibility for drugs and acute medical care for Americans over age 65. To cover those between the ages of 23 and 65, he would build on the present employer-based system with tax credits and federal subsidies to cover low- and moderate-income Americans who lack insurance. (See www.deanforamerica.com.)

Kucinich's approach, modeled after the Canadian single-payer health plan, is the best and most equitable way to expand health coverage. It would be a boon for conscientious employers who now pay confiscatory premiums charged by private insurance companies. Employers who cannot afford to provide insurance on their own would find expansion of Medicare to be an affordable way to provide necessary benefits for their workers. And it would lift from the states and local governments the burden of providing health care for the working poor. Health care should be an issue that distinguishes Democrats from the skinflints of the GOP in 2004. -- JMC

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