From the NY Times
October 10, 2007
Capitol Feud: A 12-Year-Old Is the Fodder
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 â€” There have been moments when the fight between Congressional Democrats and President Bush over the State Childrenâ€™s Health Insurance Program seemed to devolve into a shouting match about who loves children more.
So when Democrats enlisted 12-year-old Graeme Frost, who along with a younger sister relied on the program for treatment of severe brain injuries suffered in a car crash, to give the response to Mr. Bushâ€™s weekly radio address on Sept. 29, Republican opponents quickly accused them of exploiting the boy to score political points.
Then, they wasted little time in going after him to score their own.
In recent days, Graeme and his family have been attacked by conservative bloggers and other critics of the Democratsâ€™ plan to expand the insurance program, known as S-chip. They scrutinized the familyâ€™s income and assets â€” even alleged the counters in their kitchen to be granite â€” and declared that the Frosts did not seem needy enough for government benefits.
But what on the surface appears to be yet another partisan feud, all the nastier because a child is at the center of it, actually cuts to the most substantive debate around S-chip. Democrats say it is crucially needed to help the working poor â€” Medicaid already helps the impoverished â€” but many Republicans say it now helps too many people with the means to help themselves.
The feud also illustrates what can happen when politicians showcase real people to make a point, a popular but often perilous technique. And in this case, the discourse has been anything but polite.
The critics accused Graemeâ€™s father, Halsey, a self-employed woodworker, of choosing not to provide insurance for his family of six, even though he owned his own business. They pointed out that Graeme attends an expensive private school. And they asserted that the familyâ€™s home had undergone extensive remodeling, and that its market value could exceed $400,000.
One critic, in an e-mail message to Graemeâ€™s mother, Bonnie, warned: â€œLie down with dogs, and expect to get fleas.â€ As it turns out, the Frosts say, Graeme attends the private school on scholarship. The business that the critics said Mr. Frost owned was dissolved in 1999. The familyâ€™s home, in the modest Butchers Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, was bought for $55,000 in 1990 and is now worth about $260,000, according to public records. And, for the record, the Frosts say, their kitchen counters are concrete.
Certainly the Frosts are not destitute. They also own a commercial property, valued at about $160,000, that provides rental income. Mr. Frost works intermittently in woodworking and as a welder, while Mrs. Frost has a part-time job at a firm that provides services to publishers of medical journals. Her job does not provide health coverage.
Under the Maryland child health program, a family of six must earn less than $55,220 a year for children to qualify. The program does not require applicants to list their assets, which do not affect eligibility.
In a telephone interview, the Frosts said they had recently been rejected by three private insurance companies because of pre-existing medical conditions. â€œWe stood up in the first place because S-chip really helped our family and we wanted to help other families,â€ Mrs. Frost said.
â€œWe work hard, weâ€™re honest, we pay our taxes,â€ Mr. Frost said, adding, â€œThere are hard-working families that really need affordable health insurance.â€
Democrats, including the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, have risen to the Frostsâ€™ defense, saying they earn about $45,000 a year and are precisely the type of working-poor Americans that the program was intended to help.
Ms. Pelosi on Tuesday said, â€œI think itâ€™s really a sad statement about how bankrupt some of these people are in their arguments against S-chip that they would attack a 12-year-old boy.â€
The House and Senate approved legislation to expand the child health program by $35 billion over five years. President Bush, who proposed a lower increase, vetoed the bill last week. Mr. Bush said the Democratsâ€™ plan was fiscally unsound and would raise taxes; the Democrats say he is willing to spend billions on the Iraq war but not on health care for American children.
Mr. Bushâ€™s plan could force states to tighten eligibility limits, but it seemed likely that the Frost children would still be covered.
Republicans on Capitol Hill, who were gearing up to use Graeme as evidence that Democrats have overexpanded the health program to include families wealthy enough to afford private insurance, have backed off.
An aide to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, expressed relief that his office had not issued a press release criticizing the Frosts.
But Michelle Malkin, one of the bloggers who have strongly criticized the Frosts, insisted Republicans should hold their ground and not pull punches.
â€œThe bottom line here is that this family has considerable assets,â€ Ms. Malkin wrote in an e-mail message. â€œMarylandâ€™s S-chip program does not means-test. The refusal to do assets tests on federal health insurance programs is why federal entitlements are exploding and government keeps expanding. If Republicans donâ€™t have the guts to hold the line, they deserve to lose their seats.â€
As for accusations that bloggers were unfairly attacking a 12-year-old, Ms. Malkin wrote on her blog, â€œIf you donâ€™t want questions, donâ€™t foist these children onto the public stage.â€
Mr. and Mrs. Frost said they were bothered by the assertion that they lacked health coverage by their own choice.
â€œThat is not true at all,â€ Mrs. Frost said. â€œBasically all these naysayers need to lay the facts out on the page, and say, â€˜How could a family be able to do this?â€™ S-chip is a stopgap.â€