Such a kidder!

George W. "We'll love the babies" Bush says he's a champion of children in Texas. Roughly 200,000 of them might disagree.

Topics: George W. Bush, Al Gore,

All I can say is I’ve tried. Since Lie of the Week first launched, we’ve had one column targeting Al Gore and four skewering George W. Bush. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The brief from the editors was to be a switch-hitter, to nail each side. The problem was supposed be balancing out the misstatements of Gore. Isn’t Gore supposed to be the fibber?

The only problem is that George W. just doesn’t seem to want to cooperate. This week’s Lie is a perfect example.

The latest Bush-Gore dust-up is over their competing policies for providing health insurance for children in low-income families. In particular, they’re arguing over a program called CHIPs, the State Child Health Insurance Program, a program that was passed with bipartisan support in 1997 and that aimed to provide coverage for children whose parents couldn’t afford private insurance but made too much money to qualify for Medicaid.

In Bush’s press release it says: “When the CHIPs program was first implemented, Governor Bush embraced it as an opportunity to help deliver health coverage to thousands of uninsured children, and signed legislation providing health insurance for more than 423,000 children.”

Well, not exactly. Bush, who while campaigning loves to promise crowds that “we’ll love the babies,” did eventually “sign” a bill that provided health insurance to roughly that number of kids. Thats not the whole story.

First, a few details: The CHIPs program involves a mixture of federal and state money. The federal government will pay for health coverage for children whose parents make up to double what is considered the poverty line as long as the state agrees to foot a portion of the bill (in Texas’ case, 26 percent of the tab). A number of Republican governors have eagerly embraced the program, most notably John Engler in Michigan, John Rowland in Connecticut, Christie Todd Whitman in New Jersey and George Pataki in New York.

But in healthcare policy circles, Bush has actually been rather notorious for trying to make sure the program covers as few kids as possible. Though the program allowed states to insure kids at up to double the poverty line — or 200 percent — Bush first tried to limit coverage to kids whose parents made up to 133 percent of the poverty line, later agreeing to bump it up to 150 percent. Bush fought tooth and nail with the state legislature to keep coverage to 150 percent, rather than the more generous 200 percent. In human terms, this meant denying coverage to roughly 200,000 Texas children. The legislature eventually won, and Bush signed the bill. But Bush fought it every step of the way.



So, signed it? Yes. But “embraced” it? Well, that sounds like a bit of a stretch. Doesn’t it?

To clarify matters I talked to Dan Bartlett, Bush’s press spokesman who covers healthcare policy matters. According to Bartlett, the charge that Bush tried to lowball the CHIPs program and keep coverage at 150 percent is just a misleading “snapshot” of the legislative process. Bush followed the lead of the legislature’s Interim Committee on Children’s Health Insurance, which recommended starting with coverage at 150 percent, and then later eagerly signed the bill when the full legislature decided to go with 200 percent. The key point in Bartlett’s version of events is that Bush was basically just following the lead of the interim committee.

That’s not how Texas state Rep. Glen Maxey sees it. Maxey, a Democrat, has worked closely on the CHIPs issue in Texas and was on that interim committee. Maxey calls Bartlett’s version of events a “blatant outright lie, a Texas tall tale.” The committee never recommended the 150 percent coverage level. Not only did Bush push hard for the lower coverage number, he also slow-rolled the process so that the program wouldn’t get up and running until roughly a year after it could have gone into effect.

“Out of the roughly 500,000 who the program should cover, only 28,000 [have been enrolled]. Other states have been up and running for a long time. We’re turning back money to the federal government,” he says. (Maxey also notes that one of the reasons Bush resisted the program so mightily was that the enrollment process could lead to something called “Medicaid spillover.” That means that in the process of signing up for CHIPs, some parents might discover they were actually eligible for Medicaid. The last thing candidate Bush wants is rising Medicaid rolls in Texas while he’s running for president.)

The bottom line seems to be that Bush worked pretty hard to cover as few kids as possible under the CHIPs program. To say that he “embraced [the program] as an opportunity to help deliver health coverage to thousands of uninsured children” isn’t just a stretch. Its a lie.

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Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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