Billions squandered in Iraq could have paid for health care at home

February 12, 2007|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Every week, the American people spend $2 billion in Iraq - much of it for troops and materiel, but plenty of it for schools, hospitals and electricity for Iraqis. Their oil money hasn't paid for reconstruction. We have.

Nor has the White House hesitated to shove us off into a deep sea of red ink to continue funneling billions toward its Iraqi misadventure.

What if, instead of putting this war on a credit card, we were paying for it with real money? We could lay off the National Park Service, perhaps, or close the Food and Drug Administration. We could make up the full cost simply by wiping out Medicare for a year. But why take such measures when we can use Visa? Despite a national debt in the trillions, Congress hasn't blocked a single bill appropriating money for this war.

Yet several states are struggling to find the money to keep providing inexpensive health insurance for the children of working-class families. Georgia, for example, will soon run out of money for PeachCare, which provides affordable health care for the children of families who earn too much money to be eligible for Medicaid. A dozen other states are expected to run out of money for similar programs this year.

Congress has been reluctant to provide additional funds to those states where health insurance has proved more popular than expected or where, for other reasons, costs have risen quickly.

In an odd twist of timing, L. Paul Bremer III, who used to head reconstruction efforts in Iraq, was in Washington recently testifying before a House committee. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, was especially interested in $12 billion in cash - shrink-wrapped in huge stacks - that was flown to Iraq aboard cargo planes between May 2003 and June 2004. Government auditors have noted that few reasonable accounting rules were applied; the money was not monitored once it reached Iraq. Only this much is certain: None of those billions is now available to help American children get health care.

As a result of the funding crunch, Georgia officials recently issued a directive closing PeachCare to any new enrollees. So if you just lost your job and your medical benefits, too bad. You can't get your children into PeachCare.

PeachCare grew out of an innovative initiative known as SCHIPs, for State Children's Health Insurance Programs, backed by President Bill Clinton and passed by Congress in 1997. The programs, jointly funded by the states and the federal government, are credited with reducing the number of uninsured children by about one-third.

In Georgia, families are eligible if they earn up to 235 percent of the poverty level, or $48,000 a year for a family of four. Parents pay monthly premiums ranging from $10 to $35 for one child to a maximum of $70 for two or more children.

The plan has been a boon for working families at a time when the economy is cleaving in two; highly educated workers in the information economy are doing quite well, while less-educated workers are getting by on less and less. As factories shut down or move offshore, the jobs that guarantee a decent wage with generous benefits are disappearing.

You'd think Congress would rush to give those workers a hand up. Instead, the politics of the past few years have fixed on fighting a misguided war and protecting the wealthy.

The war in Iraq has cost us about $400 billion; with that, we could have paid for quality health insurance plans for every American without them and had plenty left over. Or, as London's Guardian newspaper has noted, we could have given each Iraqi nearly $15,000.

Either investment would have been more productive than the war.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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