How the Right's S-CHIP Smear Backfired

"Hi, my name is Graeme Frost," began the Democrats' September 28th radio address. "I'm 12 years old and I live in Baltimore, Maryland. Most kids my age probably haven't heard of CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program. But I know all about it, because if it weren't for CHIP, I might not be here today.”

The right certainly wishes he hadn't been on the radio that day. Three years ago, Graeme, along with his sister, Gemma, was badly injured in a car accident. He spent the week after the accident in a coma, and remained in the hospital for five-and-a-half months. He still attends rehabilitative therapy, speaks with a lisp, and moves slowly. His sister, Gemma, is worse off: She endured severe brain damage, and receives state assistance to attend a school for the developmentally disabled.

The Frost family bears a heavy burden, and much sadness. But they are not bankrupt, and were not incapable of procuring care for their injured children. That's because the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), which extends health insurance to low-income children, covered the costs. The program worked exactly as promised, providing high quality medical care for children of limited means in their time of need.

The right's response to 12-year-old Graeme Frost was breathtaking: They tried to Swift Boat him. They implied that his family was rich and fraudulently freeloading off the government. They posted pictures of the private school he attends. They repeatedly called his home. In a particularly deranged act, Michelle Malkin drove to his block, tried to eyeball the value of his house, and interrogated his neighbors as to the family's financial situation.

Big mistake. The facts of the Frost family's ordeal perfectly buttress the case for expanding S-CHIP, which George W. Bush has vetoed. Halsey Frost, Graeme's father, is a self-employed woodworker and welder. The woodworking company he started folded in 1999 -- in part because of the high costs of health insurance. Bonnie Frost, Graeme's mother, works part-time providing services to publishers of medical journals, in addition to raising the family's three children. Last year, the Frost family's income was about $45,000 -- $11,000 beneath the S-CHIP cutoff in Maryland. Their home, which Malkin so intently spied on, and which some conservative bloggers estimated at nearly half a million dollars, was purchased for $55,000 in 1990. Graeme attends school on a nearly full scholarship, with the family scraping together around $500 a year to finish off his tuition.

The Frost family's situation highlights our health care system's moral injustices, economic failing, and simple absurdities. The employer-based nature of our system makes it far harder to procure health insurance outside of a corporate job, and makes it almost impossible for the self-employed to afford coverage. The burden of health costs weigh heavily on small businesses, and force some to fold. The vicissitudes of the individual market, and the freedom insurers are granted to deny coverage based on preexisting conditions, means it would be impossible for the Frosts to procure insurance now that their children have severe health problems -- indeed, three private insurers had previously rejected their applications outright.

And this was a family that was doing everything right. Both parents work. They own their own home. They care for three children, two of them now with serious health problems. They've gotten their son into a good private school on scholarship. But, like millions of other Americans, they've found that doing everything right doesn't mean you can afford health insurance.

It was to this family, and these circumstances, that commenters at levied such caring words as, "If federal funds were required [the Frosts] could die for all I care. Let the parents get second jobs, let their state foot the bill or let them seek help from private charities." Compassionate conservatism indeed.

Is it really the stance of conservatives, compassionate or otherwise, that their children should lack medical coverage? Is this what the modern Republican Party has come to? Because make no mistake: It's families like the Frosts who'll be helped by S-CHIP's expansion.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the expansion would provide coverage to 5.8 million more children than S-CHIP currently serves. Of those children, 3.8 million are uninsured right now. Eighty-four percent of those children are currently eligible for and in need of S-CHIP, but the states lack the funding to add them to the program. Of the remaining 2 million, the children that Republicans fear will be stolen from the private insurers, the lion's share will be uninsured when they sign up for S-CHIP -- they're currently counted as insured because their family's situation makes it possible that, sometime in the next few years, they might get private coverage. I'm sure that's a great comfort to them.

As for George W. Bush's constantly repeated talking point that the new bill will cover children in "households with incomes of up to $83,000 a year," that's simply a lie. No such provision exists. And Bush's constant mention of such a nonexistent clause even infuriates Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who said, "The president's understanding of our bill is wrong. I urge him to reconsider his veto message based on a bill we might pass, not something someone on his staff told him wrongly is in my bill.”

But then, it's all wrong, isn't it? The hunting of the Frosts to prove that they don't need S-CHIP. The smearing of Graeme's family because they dared to tell their story. The attacks on a $35 billion bill to insure 5.8 million more children when we're blithely spending exponentially more on tax cuts and failed wars. The conscious misrepresentations of the legislation meant to erode its support. But, for S-CHIP's opponents, it's all necessary. You need to make a lot of noise to drown out the quiet, poignant testimony of Graeme Frost. But make too much, and you simply draw attention to it. Which is what they did.

"Now I'm back to school," finished Graeme. "One of my vocal chords is paralyzed so I don't talk the same way I used to. And I can't walk or run as fast as I did. The doctors say I can't play football any more, but I might still be able to be a coach. I'm just happy to be back with my friends…. I just hope the president will listen to my story and help other kids to be as lucky as me. This is Graeme Frost, and this has been the Weekly Democratic Radio address. Thanks for listening.”