Though prospects for an economic stimulus package improved late last week, it seemed the people most in need of emergency help-the newly unemployed and uninsured-were afterthoughts to an unneeded and even dangerous tax cut.
Although neither party has distinguished itself since that nimble first response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Republicans in Congress and President Bush have seemed particularly out of touch with responding to the needs of those affected by the economic downturn. Instead, they continued to hold out for huge tax cuts that benefit large corporations and the wealthiest Americans, even if that meant no stimulus package was passed.
What's needed is a common-sense measure that helps people keep afloat, including having healthcare coverage. Finding a way to help displaced workers pay for part of their benefits under COBRA is one solution. Others include giving workers who didn't have employer-sponsored plans the funds to pay for insurance, extending unemployment benefits and helping states finance their severely taxed Medicaid programs.
Instead we get a GOP plan to eliminate the alternative minimum corporate tax, which would mean a number of large corporations would be paying no taxes while ordinary Americans struggle. Together with accelerating other tax cuts passed last spring, the plan seemed to offer the prospect of ever-larger budget deficits.
For healthcare providers, this is a very real emergency. They should be fighting every day to keep people insured so they can pay for their treatment. They also should be opposing tax cuts that will prevent them from improving Medicare reimbursements or getting help in bioterrorism preparedness.
Data from the federal government show that from March to November, 911,680 people lost their health coverage and their jobs. This has ended the trend toward fewer uninsured people that we saw in the long economic expansion.
To his credit, Rep. William Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and author of the $100 billion GOP stimulus plan, agreed to a Democratic amendment to spend $25 billion to extend unemployment benefits for displaced workers by 13 weeks to 39 weeks and provide tax credits to help them pay for continued health benefits.
President Bush is expected to approve the plan, as long as a $15 billion homeland security package is not attached. Thomas correctly stated that the homeland security spending-which Senate Democrats are pushing-should not be an issue in a stimulus plan, particularly because it was larded with unrelated spending items.
Democrats also have supported helping states cope with a growing Medicaid shortfall. Even as states' revenue has dropped off a cliff, they are bracing for as many as 4 million new Medicaid recipients joining the rolls in the next six months. At least one leading Republican figure, New York Gov. George Pataki, is aiding this fight.
Whatever measure emerges should be focused on real problems. People need a place to live, food and basic healthcare coverage. If they get help, they will spend the money to meet those needs. That's stimulus enough.