By Alyssa Berg
Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, health care reform has remained firmly centered at the heart of political relevancy. However, congressional debate over the provision of government-funded health insurance to low-income Americans is far from unprecedented. Under the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, the White House pushed for comprehensive healthcare reform, with ultimately poor results. In the wake of this failure, priority shifted to smaller independent initiatives, including an effort to fund health insurance for the children of America’s “working poor,” spearheaded by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The working poor were defined as Americans with incomes high enough to preclude them from coverage under Medicare, yet too low to afford independent health insurance. In 1996, Massachusetts had passed a state-level children’s health plan, which interested Senator Kennedy as a model for a national program. He began investigating the feasibility of such an initiative, identifying an increased Federal tax on cigarettes as a possible source of funding.
Meanwhile, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had also taken an interest in children’s health policy. During the Clinton Administration’s first attempt to reform health care, the First Lady had chaired the President’s task force on the issue with the goal of convincing the American people of the plan’s effectiveness. These appeals had fallen on deaf ears, yet the First Lady was determined to enact health care reform, and thus aligned herself with Sen. Kennedy’s initiative.
Sen. Kennedy recognized, however, that in order for his initiative to be successful, he would need support from across the aisle. For this, he turned to Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, with whom he had worked previously as they served as ranking member and chairmen (respectively) of the Senate Labor Committee. The two were known for their ability to compromise in pursuit of shared end goals, and the issue of children’s health care proved no exception. Sen. Hatch became the lead sponsor of Sen. Kennedy’s legislation, which was previewed in President Clinton’s 1997 State of the Union address.
Once introduced in the Senate, the bill was initially unsuccessful due to conflicts it created with the Senate’s budget resolution that year. However, Sens. Kennedy and Hatch persevered, reviving the bill before the Senate with renewed conviction. They were joined again by the First Lady, as well as by several children’s health advocates, including the Children’s Defense Fund and the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. Finally, on August 5th, 1997, the initiative was passed as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
In the midst of debate over the initiative, Sen. Hatch argued that, “…as a nation, as a society, we have a moral responsibility,” to ensure that America’s children can grow up secure in their health. While there are many motivators for bipartisanship and cooperation, Senators Kennedy and Hatch serve as exemplary stewards of the moral obligation inherent to their office as representatives of the American people.