- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

As Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore go down to the wire in America's closest presidential race in two decades, it appears Texas children may be the chips in a high-stakes political poker game. Responding to Mr. Bush's slogan of compassionate conservatism, the vice president has taken his Texas record to task. In particular, Mr. Gore has blasted the state of children's health in Texas, implying that Texas kids are unable to access health care.

Let's examine the facts. First, it is important to realize that the primary health insurance program for people in poverty is Medicaid. Since this is a federal program, disparities in the level of health insurance from one state to another are more likely the result of differences in demographics than a lack of concern for children. For example, given the large immigrant population in Texas, it is pure folly to compare its social indicators with those of Iowa. As a candidate from a relatively poor state in 1992, it was ironically President Clinton who warned of the misleading nature of comparisons between states.

One of Mr. Gore's favorite attacks is that Texas is "48th in per-capita funding for public health." In fact, last year, Gov. Bush and the Texas legislature dedicated a record $1.8 billion dollars for health care initiatives in Texas. However, it is wrong to equate success with more spending. While more money can always be allocated to hire additional bureaucrats, such spending will almost certainly not improve people's lives.

Instead of focusing on spending, it makes more sense to examine the results. The number of uninsured people in Texas has actually declined under Mr. Bush, while it has increased nationally under Clinton-Gore. Even those Texas children who still lack insurance are guaranteed to receive medical care in emergency rooms across the state with the cost covered by local public hospital districts. Additionally, Texas has long offered free immunizations to children through a variety of state and local programs and Mr. Bush signed a law in 1997 requiring HMOs to cover immunizations.

However, there was a realization in Texas that some children, whose families were not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, but nevertheless could not afford health insurance, needed access to a broader range of health services. In the 1999 session, the legislature passed the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which Mr. Bush signed into law.

The CHIP program serves children from birth to age 19 in families that make as much as twice the federal poverty level, such as families of four with a net income of about $34,100. Families whose children qualify for CHIP receive comprehensive health insurance, including access to doctors, hospitals, specialists, lab tests, X-rays, immunizations, dental, mental health and substance-abuse services.

The amount families pay for coverage under CHIP depends on the family's ability to pay. CHIP rates range from $15 a year per family to $18 a month per family with higher co-payments.

Texas has been diligent about enrolling children in the CHIP program. For example in Houston, the state, working with Republican County Judge Robert Eckels, has placed ads on Spanish-speaking television and radio stations urging eligible parents to sign their children up for CHIP.

It is true that Mr. Bush and Republicans in the legislature fought efforts to extend CHIP to families making three times the poverty level. This would have required a far greater commitment of taxpayer funds and unnecessarily extended government assistance to families making as much as $50,000 a year.

This dichotomy also comes to the forefront in the Gore and Bush prescription-drug plans. While Mr. Gore would create a prescription-drug entitlement for all seniors, even the very wealthiest ones, Mr. Bush recognizes that 80 percent of seniors already have private prescription-drug coverage and wisely focuses his plan on seniors at or near poverty.

This distinction goes to perhaps the fundamental difference between the two campaigns. While Mr. Gore supports means-tested tax cuts, Mr. Bush supports means-tested government benefits.

Thus, although Democrats have successfully demonized Republicans in past campaigns for not caring about the disadvantaged, Mr. Bush's record in Texas suggests this tactic may not work this year. The real question in this election is not whether those who truly need a hand up will receive it, but whether middle and upper class Americans are better served by keeping more of their own earnings or becoming part of another government entitlement program.

Marc Levin is vice chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas (www.yct.org).

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