With President George W. Bush proposing to push the price tag for the Iraq War up to nearly $600 billion more than was spent on the Vietnam War while seeking new cuts in our health care safety net, it would appear the debate over guns and butter is over. The guns have won.
Polls before the last election found that the two issues foremost in voters' minds were the war and our ever-worsening health care crisis. More than ever, the two issues seem linked. With record budget deficits, substantially inflated by spending on the war, resources for health care and other critical domestic needs are increasingly starved.
On the same day the president was proposing another $245 billion to prosecute the war this year and next, which would bring the five-year total since the war began to a staggering sum of $589 billion, he also called for slashing $78.6 billion from Medicare and Medicaid over the next five years.
In addition, Bush wants Medicare recipients to pay higher premiums for prescription drugs and doctors' services and is proposing to eliminate annual indexing of income thresholds, effectively another $10 billion in cuts.
Expanding children's and preventive health programs and addressing "personal responsibility" by tackling childhood and adult obesity are supposedly atop everyone's short list of health care priorities. But these now appear to be collateral damage.
Bush is seeking a $223 million reduction in spending for the Children's Health Insurance Program and the elimination of a preventive health services block-grant program, $99 million a year to the states, used for obesity prevention and programs for chronic health conditions.
He's also seeking millions in reductions for the National Cancer Institute, at the very moment some progress has been made in fighting cancer, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for disease surveillance monitoring of bird flu and other approaching epidemics.
That's just the cuts. There's no mention of additional funding to address the national blight of 47 million uninsured Americans, another 17 million underinsured, the increased closure of public hospitals and clinics, including in half of the nation's poor counties that no longer have a health center, and all the other dismal statistics that have dropped our country to 37th in the world in health care indicators.
Imagine for a moment how else we could have spent $589 billion.
With those same dollars you could buy health insurance for all the nation's uninsured people for the next three years. Or you could fund the current federal program of spending on HIV/AIDS antiretroviral drugs for the next 60 years. Or you could cover the cost of educating an additional 39.2 million registered nurses.
And while there's plenty of money to send more troops into harm's way, veterans are feeling the pain of cuts in our nation's health spending. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 263,257 veterans were denied enrollment for Veterans Benefits Administration health coverage in 2005. To cut costs, enrollment has been suspended for those deemed not to have service-related injuries or illnesses.
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom," Dr. Martin Luther King said. And, he might well have added, endangering the health security of its citizens at home. *
Deborah Burger is president of the California Nurses Association.