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Attention-Starved

Grandstanding on Schiavo masks larger problems

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At 8 on a Friday night, Grant Street is so dead that even prostitutes and the homeless shun it. But there we were on March 18: a couple TV crews, a City Paper reporter, and U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, standing before the Allegheny County Courthouse.

 

 

Santorum was holding a sort of drive-by press conference -- walking up to the courthouse, talking to cameras for 15 minutes, and then disappearing into the night -- to discuss Terry Schiavo. Schiavo, you may have heard, is the brain-damaged Florida woman whose family opposes her husband's attempts to remove her feeding tube, and Santorum was calling for Congressional action to support their case. Schiavo, he said, "has been issued a death sentence" but, unlike a death-row convict, no federal court could hear her appeal. "We wouldn't treat Scott Peterson this way," Santorum said. "We wouldn't treat a terrorist this way."

 

There's no doubting Santorum's sincere compassion. I just wish it extended further...like maybe to disabled people in his own state.

 

Exactly one day earlier, Santorum voted to reduce funding for Medicaid, a government insurance program that benefits the poor, by $14 billion. According to the Consumer Healthcare Coalition, Medicaid benefits nearly 800,000 Pennsylvania children, 200,000 seniors and 400,000 people with disabilities. Even without Santorum's cuts, the program is already strapped: Gov. Ed Rendell recently raised drug co-pays to cover expenses, and as more Pennsylvanians lose private insurance, costs are expected to mount even higher.

 

Hours before Santorum's press conference, in fact, the Consumer Health Coalition and other activists protested the cuts outside Santorum's office at Station Square. "We are in a health-care crisis," said CHC Executive Director Kate Robinson. "Everyone knows at least one person who has a horror story about their lack of access to health care."

 

None of those people are on the evening news, however, and so no one seems to care. No reporters other than myself attended Robinson's protest that afternoon.

 

"I understand the politics around this," Santorum told me at his evening press event. "There are politics around every vote." But states are gaming the Medicaid system, he claimed, receiving as much as $6 billion a year to provide health care outside federal guidelines. (Imagine: sneaking around to give residents affordable health care! Have these states no shame?) Anyway, the cuts wouldn't reduce the Medicaid budget, he contended -- just slow down its expected increase. "Only in Washington" a Santorum spokeswoman later told me, would a slower rate of growth be considered a "cut."

 

But it was "only in Washington" that anyone wanted the cuts at all. Republican governors, including Bob Taft of Ohio and conservative firebrand Haley Barbour of Mississippi, opposed the cuts as stridently as Democrats such as Rendell. The March of Dimes also opposed the cuts, as did dozens of other groups ranging from the AARP to the National Association of Children's Hospitals.

 

Thanks to Democrats and Republican swing votes including Santorum's fellow Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, those cuts were removed from the budget -- for now, at least. But Santorum's vote against Medicaid funding wasn't the only dubious decision he made last week. On the same day, he also voted to cut money used to redevelop impoverished communities...and to prohibit the government from negotiating lower drug prices for Medicare recipients.

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