Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why Johnny Can't Shoot

On February 28, 2007, NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr ended his commentary on the national Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) with this remark:

Leave no child behind is a slogan that President Bush borrowed from the Children's Defense Fund and applied to his No Child Left Behind education program. Perhaps it could be applied as well to children's health. Or perhaps children's health should be redefined as a defense program, meant to ensure a supply of healthy young people for future wars.
Fast-forward to this morning, and read the Richmond Times-Dispatch's front-page article, "70 percent of young people are unable to enlist," excerpted below. It begins:

Money spent on early-childhood education today can help protect America's national security tomorrow, former military leaders said yesterday at a news conference in Richmond.
But a Washington-based group of retired military leaders called Mission: Readiness -- Military Leaders for Kids said that providing more at-risk children with early education would increase high school graduation rates, reduce crime and improve physical fitness among young people.

"The younger they start with education, the better they will be in the future," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Clara L. Adams-Ender of Lake Ridge.

And, Mission: Readiness said, that would increase the number of people who could qualify to volunteer for the armed services.

Nearly 30 percent of Virginia high school students fail to graduate on time or drop out entirely, said the nonprofit group, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"We cannot allow today's dropout crisis to become a national security crisis," said retired Air Force Gen. Richard E. Hawley of Newport News. ...

The article by staff writer Peter Bacque goes on to report that Mission: Readiness backs full funding of the Virginia Preschool Initiative, at $30-$35 million a year. Delegate Mamye BaCote, who joined the M:R people on stage for the conference, took a bit of the shine off the brass's enthusiasm. "I don't know where the money's coming from right now, but we'll find it if we can," the article quotes her as saying.

Well, yeah. If this were West Virginia, maybe we could sell some leftover F-22 parts. At the national level, the military always seems to get a huge chunk of the budget. Is it time to redefine early education as a defense program?

Of course, here in Virginia, we've got tobacco, a useful fundraiser as long as people keep smoking...

If you've got the time, here's the editorial I wrote for the August 2007 issue of Richmond Parents Monthly:

It’s a good thing I was sitting down when I read the news about the vote to raise federal taxes on cigarettes, because I just about fainted dead away from the stupidity of the idea.

The Senate Finance Committee voted on July 19 to raise the per-pack federal tax from 39 cents to $1 in order to expand health care coverage for uninsured children though SCHIP (see sidebar [below]). The bill will be debated in the full Senate; if it passes, it will go to the House for debate.

At first, I chortled. Yeah, tax the heck out of those coffin nails! Plus, save the children! Then I read farther into the article and realized that the twisted logic behind this bill may actually be detrimental to the health of children.

The article quoted Daniel E. Smith, president of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, saying the move would “discourage youth and adults from smoking.” Presumably, Smith shares the same goal as Wyoming senator Michael Enzi, who, the article also reported, wants to eliminate national tobacco use in a generation. (He has introduced a different bill aimed at doing so.)

Now wait a minute. If the higher cost of cigarettes reduces the amount people smoke, will SCHIP funding goals be reached? If I’d like to see increased funding for children’s health care, should I start buying cigarettes? Could smokers someday feel good about lighting up, knowing that they’re supporting the nation’s uninsured children?

Even though a higher cigarette tax probably won’t appreciably affect the number of cigarettes sold in the short term, it’s clear that the two goals of this proposed tax bill are at odds with each other.

The biggest question is: Why seek to get funds from an activity you want to eliminate? If we truly believe that the health of our nation’s children is important enough to direct federal dollars to it, we need to stop treating it as an afterthought, trying to squeeze dollars from butts.

Using poorly thought-out reasoning to address a crucial issue only delays the real solution for uninsured children.

Money spent on children’s health care is an investment. If children receive regular checkups—at which their parents can receive health education, as well—and basic preventive care, savings will be realized in the form of decreased sick care costs later.

Politicians have a tough job. It’s hard to estimate how much, spent now, will result in savings later. And it’s hard take money away from something else to fund a program with results that aren’t immediately realized. But when our leaders start radically re-assessing the importance of children’s health, they will be able to see beyond the piecemeal tax tactic.

Back in February, I had another near-fainting moment related to the SCHIP debate when the most acutely cynical remark I’ve ever heard came zinging from my car radio. I had to switch it off and choke back tears.

Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst for National Public Radio, was assessing a National Governors Association meeting at which President Bush spoke mainly about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But many governors, Schorr said, wanted answers about the future of funding for SCHIP. The Bush administration had indicated it had no plans to increase the 5 billion federal dollars it spends annually on the program.

The amount, said Schorr, might be called “piddling” compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. defense budget. Maybe, he concluded, “children’s health should be redefined as a defense program, meant to assure a supply of healthy young people for future wars.”

Is that what it will take? If our country continues to rule by twisted logic, who knows?

What is SCHIP?

The State Children’s Health Insurance Program aims to provide health insurance for children in families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but still can’t afford private health insurance.

The program is funded by national and state governments. Within broad federal guidelines, states design their own programs.

In Virginia, the program is called FAMIS, for Family Access to Medical Insurance Security. For more information, call 1-866-87FAMIS or see

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