Michael LeavittCongress has been considering how best to expand funding and coverage of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), (background here and here), with President Bush, Republican Congressional leaders and the insurance companies now fighting hard to prevent the Democrats from enacting some very good ideas that have broad public support. And except for the Republican leadership, this effort enjoys “bipartisan” support.

But the insurance industry is starting to fight back with misleading ads, and PBS’ NewsHour, which had earlier done better reporting using their health expert on this topic, dropped the ball Monday night, falsely framing the debate as between two Republican factions, while failing to explain either what the fight is about or allow any of the real Democratic sponsors to explain it.

Recall that the Senate Democrats, with some support from Republicans (e.g., Hatch, Grassley, Snowe, Domenici) are proposing to expand coverage to more children (set a higher income level of eligibility) and provide an additional $35 billion in funding over several years. That would be financed by higher taxes on cigarettes. The House Democrats are pushing for an even higher eligibility level and $50 billion more in funding. So we’re talking about expanding a highly successful program to anywhere from 3 to 5 million more of the estimated 9 million uninsured children. However, the House proposal would also reduce current subsidies for private health insurance, and that has sent Bush, the Republican leaders and the insurance company into full demogoguery about government takeover of health care, and misleading ads about taking away health coverage.

The ad I saw on CNN shows several people, mostly senior, complaining that Congress is proposing to take away their health coverage. Sounds awful, right? You’d think the Republicans were after Social Security again. But this ad, sponsored by “America’s Health Insurance Companies,” doesn’t explain that there are folks who are eligible for subsidized private health insurance, and this private insurance system competes with government sponsored pooling efforts like Medicare. Without the subsidies, the private insurance plans, which are more costly, would have to lower costs to compete against the pool-based government plans, and people would simply stay with or return to the government program. Without the subsidies, people would still be covered, but the overall cost would be less. So what’s really at stake for Republicans is whether the insurance companies get a guaranteed slice of the action, subsidized by taxes, or have to compete on a level playing field.

House Democrats are proposing to reduce the subsidy to level the playing field, and then use the money the government saves to fund millions more children under SCHIP for less cost. Sounds like a good trade, and Paul Krugman had an excellent op ed “An Immoral Philosophy” (Times Select) on the policy debate and what it says about the motives and priorities of the Republican leadership. And check out Bob Geiger, who has a fine post and video of Senator Kennedy helping Trent Lott understand the moral issues.

Now enter PBS’ NewsHour and the segment in which Gwen Ifill pretended to interview each side — but didn’t. She first interviewed Health and Human Affairs Secretary Michael Leavitt, who predictably gave us the Bush propaganda point of view about how this would force people into government health care [no it gives them a fair choice without subsidizing more costly private insurance schemes], cost too much [no, it lowers overall costs for any given level of coverage], and provide “welfare” or “public assistance” to middle-class people who don’t need it [no, it shifts health care and its funding from subsidized private insurance to pool-based systems paid for by taxes]. So who did Gwen choose to respond to Secretary Leavitt? Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty.

I admit it’s noteworthy that governors or both parties support expanding SCHIP, but a Republican governor is not going to say that the White House philosophy is wrong, that its position is false and misleading and that Leavitt unfairly smeared people with the “welfare” comment. And he’s not going to correct any of the misconceptions or concerns from Secretary Leavitt about covering too many people or costing too much. Instead, the Republican Governor said he shared those concerns and maybe we should work with the White House to address them. And Ifill did nothing to fix the imbalance her/PBS’ choice of guests created.

Dear PBS: health care is extremely important to Americans, and the SCHIP debate is important both in its own right and because it is the leading edge in the debate over where the health care reforms are headed. The key question is how you finish this sentence: “Every American needs access to _______.” The Democrats think the missing words are “universal health care.” Bush, Leavitt, and Mitch McConnell think the missing words are “private insurance policies.” That’s a huge difference Gwen, and you missed it. And having two Republicans debate insurance coverage, when the major health care reforms are all coming from Democrats, just doesn’t get it. Sloppy work, PBS; it’s time to step up your game.

Photo: Health and Human Resources Secretary Michael Leavitt, on PBS’ NewsHour.