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Healthy Kids Plan has flaws, but is fixable

(Soapboxes are guest opinions from our readers, and anyone is welcome to write one. Scott Bruun, R-West Linn, is the state representative for House District 37.)

Is healthcare an inalienable right? I'm not sure. But this dad would rather lose a limb than see his children go without health insurance.

House Bill 2201, the Governor's 'Healthy Kid's Plan,' is based on this sentiment. HB 2201 creates government-subsidized healthcare for all kids in families between 185 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) - about 40,000 children. All children below this level are already eligible for the Oregon Health Plan.

HB 2201 has two components: policy and funding.

On the policy side the plan has several flaws, all fixable. First, 300 percent of the FPL (about $61,000 for a family of four) is middle-class. It seems reasonable for folks at this level to have some discretionary income to pay for their kids' healthcare. Therefore it seems slightly presumptive to expect other taxpayers, many with lower incomes - to foot the bill. Lowering this level to 250 percent of the FPL (about $52,000 per family) may be more justifiable.

Another concern is the benefit would be available to all families with kids, regardless of citizenship. Nobody wants to prohibit medical attention to a child - that's why emergency services are mandated by federal law. Providing comprehensive healthcare to non-citizens, however, seems unfair to Oregon taxpayers.

Finally, the governor's plan will likely serve as an artificial magnate to Oregon. We want people to move here for college, family, work or simply because of love for the state. But is it good policy to attract people to Oregon simply because of our generous government benefits?

More problematic is the funding proposal. HB 2201 makes smokers solely responsible for the cost of child healthcare. Smokers make up less than 20 percent of the Oregon population, while 60 percent of smokers make less than $35,000 per year. In other words, HB 2201 asks a lower income minority to pay the bill for a policy that largely benefits middle-income families. The policy is disconnected in the fact that it funds something we all want - healthcare for kids - with something we don't want - people smoking. Smoking may be greatly reduced because of this bill. Wonderful! Yet if this happens, the program is left unfunded.

Some suggest that legislators who oppose raising taxes to fund HB 2201 are 'beholden to big tobacco.' That's a weak argument. I for one believe cigarette taxes should be raised, but they should be raised for two reasons only: 1) to offset the costs from smoking on the public health system; and 2) to get people to stop smoking. Linking a diminishing revenue source to a growing entitlement is poor policy.

Another problem with the funding is that it makes an expensive government program appear 'free' to families using the plan, as well as most of the rest of us. In other words, those using the services - or applauding the policy - are largely removed from the program costs. This is dangerous.

New government entitlements may be good policy, but it's important that we all share and recognize the costs. To do otherwise makes us increasingly dependent on government.

If we agree that comprehensive child healthcare is a priority, and I think it is, then we can fund it from general funds into which all taxpayers contribute. And with almost 20 percent growth in tax revenue this biennium, we are certainly capable of funding 'priorities' without raising taxes.