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CHIPs - A Commentary

By Merrie Spaeth, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – The Texas House has sent a budget to the Senate. This proposal would cut the CHIP program - actually part of Medicaid - by reducing the number of children covered. It's created a huge controversy. Some argue it's inhumane and short-sighted to deny coverage and the other side arguing that the state should live within what it collects from taxes.

This morning I'm arguing that it's time to look at government-funded programs as a two-way street and to enumerate what we - as taxpayers and concerned citizens - expect of the recipients.

This is part of a fundamental shift away from programs called 'entitlement' programs, as if the recipient deserves these funds or resources no matter what his or her behavior, what the cost or what the state of the overall budget is. The new philosophy looks at these programs as a compact between society and individual.

One of the catalysts for this shift began in the early 1990's with welfare reform. A new approach - with bipartisan support including President Bill Clinton - said, we'll help you out, but you're responsible for getting and keeping a job. It's better for you and it's better for society. The effort to land and hold a job, any job, even if it's tough and boring, helps move women onto a self-supporting, productive track.

Back to CHIP, here's the deal: The state funds the coverage for low income or what they call "qualifying children," but we also ask that the parents commit to the following - regular doctor checkups for preventive care, regular teeth brushing and flossing, regular exercise and good dietary habits (don't eliminate the Big Macs but put them within a balanced diet). And that's just for starters.

Because parents are the most important influence on a child, we might include parental behaviors like limited television, no drugs or cigarettes.

I can hear the howls now, claiming that low-income parents can't handle or commit to these things. I disagree. I believe the parents of kids in CHIP can understand what they are expected to do and that the great majority of them will try, and most will have some success. We don't need perfect behavior to improve their children's health. What these parents need are clear guidelines and a public bargain.

During the debate over welfare reform, the New York Times wrote about countless single mothers and how they coped with the new regulations. One woman, in her early 20's, with three separate children by three separate fathers, was now holding down a part-time job and in school to learn computer skills. She told the reporter, "It turned out I needed a push."

As the senators debate CHIP, they should debate whether - with childhood obesity becoming an epidemic, this approach will result in healthier children - and a healthier Texas. Time to give parents and children a "push" to a healthier lifestyle. I'm Merrie Spaeth.

Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant in Dallas.