Conservative Infant Death Syndrome

Isaiah J. Poole

The rate at which infants are dying has begun to creep upward in several Southern states. This is an entirely predictable—and deadly—outcome of a systematic squeezing of federal and state health programs under conservative rule.

The report in The New York Times Sunday  that outlined some of the effects of cuts in federal and state health programs on infant care, particularly in Mississippi under Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, certainly was no surprise to Julie Winokur, an independent filmmaker. She has spent the past few months investigating health care problems in Tennessee, where Democratic governor and former health care executive Phil Bredesen took a page from the conservative playbook and slashed a Medicaid program that had been hailed as one of the most inclusive in the country.

Bredesen, who took office in 2002, cut 170,000 people from the Medicaid rolls. Wonokur got to meet some of the casualties — people who were on dialysis who were cut off from their treatments, or patients under psychiatric care who no longer could receive their medications. “These policies were extremely damaging,” she said.

Winokur’s film on the results, “Collateral Damage ,” was shown on Capitol Hill Monday to an audience of congressional staff members, as part of a larger campaign of at least 200 film showings during this week, which has been designated “Cover The Uninsured Week.”

“There is absolutely no question,” Winokur says, that the tragedies caused by Bredersen’s actions in Tennessee, Barbour in Mississippi or by governors and legislators where health care is deteriorating, especially among the poor and among people of color, are caused by the inherent flaws of a conservative ideology that turns its back on public investment and forces people to fend for themselves against a rapacious insurance industry.

In Mississippi, Barbour, like Bredesen, rode into office with a promise to cut Medicaid, and he delivered on that promise: about 54,000 fewer non-elderly people are enrolled in the Medicaid and children’s health insurance program under Barbour’s policies, which force those who remain eligible for Medicaid to jump through more bureaucratic obstacles to get it. “The philosophy was to reduce the rolls and our activities were contrary to that policy,” Maria Morris, who resigned last year as head of an office—which was sharply cut under Barbour—that informed the public about eligibility, was quoted in The Times as saying.

While the infant mortality rates are terrible, the racial disparities in infant mortality rates are criminal. Nationwide, the infant mortality rate among black people, 13.6 per 1,000 live births, was almost two-and-a-half times the rate among white people, 5.7 per 1,000, when it was last measured in 2003. In Mississippi, the rate is 6.6 percent among white people, among black people it is 17, about three times higher. Such sharp racial disparities do not only show up in areas where conservatives dominate government, but neither can conservatives show where their policies have dramatically narrowed the racial gap. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite.

Other organizations have drawn a parallel between states that have invested in infant health programs and the chances that infants born in those states will see their first birthday. The Every Child Matters Education Fund earlier this year released a report  that concluded that “kids do better in states that use tax revenues to invest in child and family programs,” while the opposite is true in states “that cut taxes and starve family and child programs.” States, in other words, like Mississippi, which boasts of being among the bottom five states in tax burden — and dead last in the Every Child Matter’s index of child well-being. Tennessee ranks near the bottom as well.

Should the life of a child depend on where they are born and the politics of their state? For the conservatives who do not hesitate to brandish their pro-life rhetoric to harass mothers making agonizing choices during pregnancy, the answer is this: If the preservation of life involves spending federal dollars to save the lives of poor children outside of the womb, they will gladly let their pro-life platform collapse in a heap of hypocrisy.

Some states are taking the initiative to chart a better course, but they need federal help, and so far the Bush administration is continuing to go backwards  in supporting state health care efforts. To turn that around, “there’s got to be a movement of people who are willing to be health care voters,” Winokur said, and move Congress and the 2008 presidential candidates to be more responsive.

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