WASHINGTON--Some folks just don't believe government-run health care will work -- even when it already is working.
Way back in the 1990s, then-Louisiana Sen. John Breaux was accosted in an airport by an elderly woman who pleaded, "Senator, don't you dare let the government get its hands on my Medicare!"
To paraphrase Rick in the movie "Casablanca," she was misinformed.
Breaux, always the gentleman, replied congenially, "Don't worry, madam, I won't."
That's a small illustration of how successful conservatives and the health insurance industry have been at demonizing anything that sounds like "government-run health care."
How did President Bush hold off attempts by the Democrat-run House to override his veto of a popular children's health care bill? He called it a foot in the door for "government-run health care."
He says that like it's a bad thing. In fact, as the Breaux anecdote illustrates, the public has been very supportive of Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, for children whose family income is too high for Medicaid but too low to afford private coverage. That left the president and his allies reduced to reminding people that, pssst, it's government health care so you should be afraid of it.
That argument did not prevent Congress from passing a bill to expand SCHIP by about 3.4 million children to cover a total of 10 million. A healthy majority of lawmakers refused to believe that key Republican backers of the bill like Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah somehow had become socialists.
Nevertheless, despite the president's abysmally low approval ratings in the polls lately, the Bush administration still flexed enough muscle last week to prevent an override veto.
For Bush and his party, this could be a case of losing by winning. As Republican candidates who will have to defend his veto over the next year are asking themselves, what's the upside of blocking health insurance to 10 million kids?
The arguments from Bush, the insurance industry and their allies seemed to change almost as much as the administration's Iraq policy. The bill's opponents really, really do want to insure more kids, they said, but the Democrats' bill was offering coverage to families that were making too much money. It's a good thing those folks weren't in charge when the idea of public schools was first debated, or parents over a certain income bracket these days would have had to send their kids to private academies.
In full defensive mode, Bush even resorted to misleading statistics. He argued, for example, that children with family incomes as high as $83,000 could qualify for SCHIP under the bill he vetoed. But that income ceiling, it turns out, was only requested by New York, one of the world's most expensive places to live, and was turned down by the Bush administration. As Hatch, a backer of Bush but also a key architect of the bill Bush vetoed, said, "about 92 percent of the kids in the program will be under 200 percent of the poverty level." The poverty level for a family of four is $20,650. They're covered by Medicaid. The SCHIP program's upper limit would be about half as high as the $83,000 Bush cited, yet he and others have tossed around the larger number as if it were mandatory.
It turns out that the bipartisan bill that Bush vetoed covers precisely the group that Bush says he wants to help. He should help them -- all he has to do is get out of the way.
In the larger health care debate that's shaping up in this presidential campaign season, Bush offers a truly intriguing argument that expanding SCHIP for working families might crowd out private insurers. In other words, if parents have a choice of turning to SCHIP, they just might do so.
That's an ironic worry for conservatives, who normally tout the virtue of choice. The Bush administration appears to favor the right of consumers to choose their insurance provider, unless their choice happens to be the government-run program.
For whom, we might ask, do lawmakers speak when they rush to protect private insurers from having to compete for your consumer dollar? Here's a hint: They are not speaking for those who need insurance.
Sure, Medicare and other government insurance programs have their problems. No plan is perfect. But the holes in private insurance coverage are growing large enough to turn nice folks like the woman Breaux encountered into angry militants at the thought of losing their government-run insurance, even when they don't realize that it's the government that runs it.
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.