ATLANTA -- In Sicko, Michael Moore resurrects a fascinating bit of history. He found an old recording by Ronald Reagan, who was hired by the American Medical Association in the early 1960s to denounce a fledgling plan for Medicare, health insurance for the elderly, and Medicaid, health insurance for the poor, as "socialized medicine."
If the plans were to pass, Mr. Reagan warned darkly, "One of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free."
It didn't work - even then. With so many elderly Americans, especially, unable to afford the doctor's visits and hospital stays they needed, common sense prevailed in Congress. And Medicare has turned out to be one of the most popular programs in U.S. government history.
Indeed, in an era of virulent anti-government rhetoric, some Americans can't quite believe it is a government program. In 1995, Medicare's 30th anniversary, President Bill Clinton said: "We had people all over America coming up to me ... saying, `Don't let the government mess with my Medicare.' People had actually forgotten where it came from, as if it sort of dropped out of the sky."
It would be difficult now to find retirees - or physicians, for that matter - who oppose Medicare. Along with pharmaceutical breakthroughs, the program has given a generation of older Americans a longer and healthier retirement.
So why can't America's children get the same access to health care that we give our elderly? What kind of society lavishes care on its citizens at the end of their lives but withholds it from the young, who need checkups and vaccinations and medicine to make sure they can grow up healthy and productive?
Despite the success of Medicare, President Bush and a coterie of conservatives in Congress are dead-set against any meaningful expansion of the program of low-cost health insurance for children known as the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. Conservative Web sites and talk shows have taken up the campaign, regurgitating the hoary old phrase "socialized medicine" to try to scare taxpayers.
But it probably won't work this time, either. Hillary Rodham Clinton's plan to transform health care crashed and burned 14 years ago, but the political and civic consensus has changed drastically since then. Far more Americans have jobs that don't provide health care; even more have seen their premiums skyrocket. They're not afraid to try a new system.
And expanding SCHIP, which currently covers about 6 million children nationwide, is a sensible place to start. The National Governors Association, a bipartisan group, supports an expansion. So do a majority of Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents, according to a Georgetown University Health Policy Institute poll conducted last month.
President Clinton started SCHIP to provide low-cost health insurance for the children of working-class families; it is funded through federal and state dollars. States have used it to provide insurance to children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but still can't afford private plans. It is not free. Parents pay premiums. But it is much more affordable than most private insurance plans.
Democrats in Congress want to expand the program to cover more children. They have proposed spending an additional $35 billion to $50 billion over the next five years. Mr. Bush, who wants to spend only about $5 billion more, has threatened to veto a substantial increase. He is annoyed that some states have provided the low-cost insurance to children whose parents might be considered middle-class.
So what? The war and reconstruction in Iraq consume billions of dollars each month. It seems stingy and mean-spirited to nickel and dime the nation's children over doctor's visits. Is it so awful that parents making $60,000 a year might get low-cost health insurance for their children?
Fighting that just seems sicko.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.