At 300 vigils, the cry is, Dont let Bush take away kids health care!

WASHINGTON — Two-year old Bethany Wilkerson was making such a healthy, happy ruckus during a Capitol Hill rally, Oct. 16, that her mother, Dara, had to hand her over to the child’s father so she could appeal to Congress to override President Bush’s veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

“Children are hanging by a thread until Congress overrides this veto,” she told the crowd at the candlelight vigil in Upper Senate Park sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It was one of 300 vigils across the nation urging Republican lawmakers to break with Bush and vote to override his veto of the bill.

The bill would increase funding for the SCHIP program by $35 billion, covering all 6.6 million youngsters now served and extending coverage to 4 million more uninsured children.

“We did not know how vital SCHIP and Medicaid are until Bethany was born with several holes in her heart,” Wilkerson of St. Petersburg, Fla., continued. “Without surgery covered by SCHIP, she might not have been here with us tonight.”

Wilkerson’s husband, Bo, told the World he and his wife are both employed at a restaurant in the Tampa Bay area earning a modest income. They would have been ruined financially if they had to pay for their child’s surgery out-of-pocket. “Everything is going great,” he said. “Bethany has a slight heart murmur but she is fine. We are going tomorrow to the offices of Florida members of Congress to ask them to vote to override.”

Florida Rep. Tom Feeney is the target of television ads in central Florida by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, blasting him for standing with Bush rather than the 190,000 children served by SCHIP in his state.

Lisa Alston, a health care worker from Baltimore, wearing her purple Local 1199 T-shirt, was there with her four children. “My 12-year-old son has asthma and my two-and-a-half-year-old uses a nebulizer,” Alston told the World. “My eldest daughter has allergies and my youngest has an astigmatism. SCHIP is very vital. I just visited the offices of Maryland congressmembers two weeks ago to ask them to override this veto. All of my children have been protected by the Maryland SCHIP since they were born.”

Dennis Rivera, president of the 1.1-million-member Local 1199, the health care division of SEIU, told the crowd that uninsured parents across the U.S. bring their children to emergency rooms with conditions that could have been prevented by SCHIP preventive care.

“This veto is simply cruel and inhumane,” Rivera said. “We believe tonight we are about 15 votes short of the majority needed. This is a mass movement. If we fall short, we are not going to stop. We are going to make sure children get health care and those who vote against it don’t come back to Congress after the next election.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told the crowd that health care is a basic human right “and yet in the richest country in the world nearly 10 million children cannot see a doctor. … Now is the time for the rest of Congress to do the right thing and override this disgraceful veto.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) was one of a roster of lawmakers who left the House and Senate floor to address the crowd. “When President Bush vetoed SCHIP, he said it was ‘excessive.’ The next day he sent a request for $190 billion for the war in Iraq. Clearly it’s a matter of priorities. The people want an end to this senseless war and they want health insurance for their children,” she said as the crowd cheered.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) scorned Bush’s claim that if SCHIP protection is extended to families with annual incomes at 250 percent of the poverty line, about $50,000 for a family of four, they will not buy private insurance. “Private health insurance would cost that family at least $12,000 a year,” he said. “The president brags that half the children in Iraq have immunizations. I want a president who provides 100 percent immunization of American children.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), her arm wrapped around children standing beside her on the platform, declared, “This is a defining moment. … Are we going to allow this president who by the end of the year will have proposed three-fourths of a trillion for the war in Iraq to deny health care for our children? We aren’t going to let him get away with it.”