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Lieberman Focuses on Kids' Health

Campaign: Democratic vice presidential nominee visits Texas to attack Bush's record on insurance for the poor. His growing criticisms have been pointed but polite.


HOUSTON — Joseph I. Lieberman took on Texas Gov. George W. Bush on his home turf Friday, accusing the Republican presidential nominee of failing to help his state's poor children stay healthy.

"Texas is one of only eight states in America where the number of children who have health coverage has actually fallen," said Lieberman, surrounded by parents and children at the Magnolia Multi-Services Center, a social services provider in east Houston. "Now, that says to me Gov. Bush just has not made children's health coverage and care a priority here in his home state."

Lieberman's assault on Bush's Texas record came after a week in which the Democratic vice presidential nominee has criticized the Republican ticket with increasingly sharp language.

He accused Bush on Friday of leaving 1.4 million Texas children without health insurance by maintaining bureaucratic hurdles in the state's Medicaid system. It's one of the reasons, he said, that Texas ranks 49th in the nation in providing children's health care.

At the center, Lieberman was flanked by seven children and their parents who said they have struggled with the state's Medicaid system and its complicated requirements that seem to change arbitrarily.

Texas Parents Tell of Difficulties

As young babies cooed and toddlers wriggled in their parents' laps, the adults spoke emotionally about their frustrations in trying to keep their children healthy, often having to choose paying for food over health insurance.

"There's nothing worse than seeing your children in pain and you can't do anything about it," said Tammy Fleming, a self-employed hairstylist whose 8-year-old son has chronic nosebleeds. She said she felt stymied when applying for Medicaid, describing it as "more like an interrogation than an application."

Lieberman said Fleming's case was emblematic of problems throughout Texas and cited the recent ruling of a federal judge who said the state has failed to live up to a 1996 consent agreement to improve Medicaid access for children.

The senator from Connecticut said that about 600,000 children who are eligible for Medicaid insurance in Texas are not enrolled in the program. He said Bush tried to limit eligibility for the federally funded Children's Health Insurance Program, which the Democratic ticket wants to expand.

CHIP provides health insurance to children whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford it on their own. Gore and Lieberman have proposed increasing the program to cover children living at 250% of the poverty level, or about $41,000 annually for a family of four.

"Now look, in this campaign, Gov. Bush may say that he has a plan to improve children's health across America," Lieberman said. "But I think we have a right to ask, why hasn't he done it in Texas?"

The Bush campaign fired back, saying that Texas is outpacing other comparable states in the enrollment of low-income children in health insurance programs, with an increase of 125,000 children in Medicaid this year and an expected 423,000 more children in CHIP during the next two years.

"It's unfortunate that Al Gore has unleashed Joe Lieberman to continue his attacks and distortions of Gov. Bush's record in Texas," said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett. "Under Gov. Bush's leadership, Texas is making historic progress on enrolling children in health care programs, including both CHIP and Medicaid."

Bartlett denied Lieberman's assertion that Bush tried to limit CHIP eligibility, and said 1.5 million children are enrolled in Medicaid in any given month. He said the actual number of uninsured children in Texas is about 1.2 million, not the 1.4 million Lieberman said.

Lieberman's growing criticisms have been pointed but polite. With a tone more of a disappointed parent than a combatant rival, the senator has avoided personal criticism of Bush and Cheney, referring to his opponents as "decent and honorable men." But he has nevertheless challenged them again and again.

Lieberman Challenges Republican Ticket

During a speech about the Democratic ticket's economic plan Wednesday in Springfield, Mo., Lieberman said Bush's tax cut plan would "send us back down the drain of deficits, rising interest rates and rising unemployment," accusing the Texas governor of "running around signing a book of blank checks drawn on an account that his tax cuts have already depleted."

On Monday, he said Bush was trying to make "an end run around the established rules of presidential debates" by not accepting all three debates proposed by the bipartisan commission. At a rally in Peoria, Ill., that night, Lieberman accused Bush of "bobbing and weaving" around the debate issue.

The Bush campaign seized on Lieberman's language Friday.

"I think we always felt that Joe Lieberman would elevate the tone of the Gore campaign, but unfortunately he's adopted the tactics of Al Gore," Bartlett said. "He's playing the traditional role of the attack dog."

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