Health Bill Would Fund ‘Community Transformation’

Published July 30, 2009

The health care overhaul bill being debated by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee contains a provision for billions of dollars a year to be sent to cities in the form of “community transformation grants.”

The grants are earmarks for local communities for walking and bicycle paths, playgrounds, streetlights, farmers’ markets, and other local development projects.

The Affordable Health Choices Act leaves the size of the grants to the discretion of the president, putting no caps on the amount the administration could send to communities it chooses to favor. An unreleased version of the bill being written in the House of Representatives also contains the grants but caps them at $1.6 billion annually.

Chock-Full of Pork

Opponents point to this program as evidence Washington cannot be trusted to produce a reform bill free of pork barrel spending, particularly in light of lawmakers’ struggles to bring the cost of the overhaul program below the $1.6 trillion estimated by the Congressional Budget Office.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the leaders in Congress and the White House are losing touch with reality,” said Georgia state Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock). “At a time when millions of Americans are searching for work, home foreclosures are reaching a 40-year high, and the national debt is enslaving future generations, we have [Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman] Ted Kennedy (D-MA) proposing to spend billions of dollars on jungle gyms and walking paths. It is almost surreal. Americans need jobs, not a trillion-dollar government spending plan disguised as health care reform.”

Iowa State Rep. Linda Upmeyer (R-Garner) agreed. “Filling a bill that purports to reform the health care system with pork is a slap in the face to Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. In my district in Iowa, unemployment is nearly 11 percent. These are tax dollars that are sent to Washington with the expectation that each dollar is treated as a valuable resource.

“I want the Congressmen and Senators to look a hardworking taxpayer in the eye and explain why it is important to spend vast sums of money on things that are not absolutely essential,” Upmeyer added.

‘Creating Opportunities’ for Health

Kennedy spokesman Anthony Coley disputed characterizations of the funding as pork. In a press statement, Coley said, “These are not public works grants; they are community transformation grants. If improving the lighting in a playground or clearing a walking path or a bike path or restoring a park are determined as needed by a community to create more opportunities for physical activity, we should not prohibit this from happening.”

Twila Brase, president of the Citizens’ Council on Health Care, disputes Coley’s claim the “community transformation grants” are not pork barrel spending.

“This is not prevention; this is pork,” Brase said. “There are lots of walking trails today that nobody uses. People who want to walk, do. People who don’t want to walk, don’t. The only thing billions in giveaways can guarantee is that the taxpayer will have to work harder and longer hours to pay for that extra money that will be spent, guaranteeing they’ll have even less time and energy to exercise.

“Increasing taxes ostensibly to promote healthy lives will be a self-defeating waste of taxpayer money,” Brase added. “If Congress wants to encourage healthier lives, they should decrease taxes and encourage cost-consciousness by putting health care dollars back into the hands of the patient.”

‘Fraction’ Goes to Coverage

“Shockingly, only a fraction of the money accumulated from cutting care for seniors and raising taxes—and this bill does both—goes to covering the uninsured,” said Betsy McCaughey, Ph.D., patient advocate, founder of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, and former lieutenant governor of New York.

“The Affordable Health Choices Act allocates huge sums to these ‘community transformation grants’ and to the creation of dozens of new government councils, programs, advisory boards, all of which is slipped into the last five hundred pages of the thousand-page bill,” McCaughey added.

“This so-called health care bill is simply bad medicine,” said Connecticut state Rep. John Hetherington (R- New Canaan). “It offers a diet rich in pork and costly to the point of being hazardous to our economy even in good times. Some of the exercise or lifestyle features seem to be intended to address obesity, but the greatest obesity we face is obesity in government.”

Jeff Emanuel ([email protected]) is research fellow for health care policy at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News.

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The Affordable Health Choices Act: