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Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007 12:00 am

Bend it like Blago

The governor spins truth on health-care initiative

Untitled Document The newspaper headlines last week were just what Gov. Rod Blagojevich wanted: · “Illinois to offer free cancer tests for women.”
· “More women get free cancer screenings — Uninsured now have access to program.”
· “Governor expands cancer screenings.”
And the story ledes were pretty good as well. For instance, here’s one from the Sun-Times: “Gov. Blagojevich . . . announced plans to provide free mammograms and breast cancer treatments to all uninsured women over age 40. The state also will offer free pelvic exams and Pap tests to uninsured women over age 35, and pay for cervical cancer treatments.”
Blagojevich claimed that the program would cover 260,000 more women and cost $50 million. It would be funded, he said, by his controversial vetoes of legislative “pork projects” from the state budget. The trouble is, only a tiny bit of this is true. For instance, Abby Ottenhoff, a spokeswoman for the governor, admitted that the state is expecting just 5,000 women to take advantage of the cancer screenings, which would likely find 50 who needed treatment. Now, don’t get me wrong here. Treating 50 uninsured women for breast or cervical cancer is a good thing, but the reality clearly doesn’t measure up to the rhetoric. What’s going on here? The governor has been getting hammered throughout the state over those aforementioned budget vetoes, which slashed almost $500 million in mostly beneficial programs, including tens of millions for health care. The vetoes were purely politically motivated and were solely directed at his perceived enemies in the House and Senate. If his enemies wanted the projects, Blagojevich cut them. Newspaper editorial boards, columnists, and victims of the governor’s vetoes have been whacking the governor pretty good for weeks. Blagojevich needed to turn things around as the Illinois House geared up to override the vetoes, so he presented this screening-and-treatment program as a superpositive aspect of his budget vetoes and framed his fight with the General Assembly as a choice between pork and saving lives — and, man, did he lay it on thick. “I dare the state Legislature to take this one away,” Blagojevich said in Peoria, according to that city’s Journal Star. Also in Peoria, according to WHOI-TV, the governor said, “If they’re not going to give us a budget that provides enough money for the important priorities, then you have to make decisions on what’s more important, and I defy any of the men and women of the General Assembly to tell me that there’s a more important priority than providing women a chance to get mammograms.”
But that spin is simply not true. Because the program will be only a tiny fraction of what the governor claims, the governor’s office admits that it will be funded with $1.75 million already set aside in the Department of Public Health’s existing budget. In other words, the governor has no plans to use any of that vetoed money, which he probably couldn’t do anyway because it would likely be unconstitutional. The General Assembly appropriates and the governor is obligated to spend the money he is given in the way it’s given.
Ah, but it doesn’t end there. The governor is also planning a massive public-relations campaign to tout the cancer screening. How much do you want to bet that the governor’s PR blitz will cost way more than the $1.75 million the state will spend on screening and treatment? If the past is any guide, the promotion will cost a whole lot more. Blagojevich spent millions of taxpayer dollars last year to promote his All Kids plan, which hasn’t been nearly as successful as it’s been claimed, but last year was an election year, so the TV ads and mailers served their real purpose. In case you haven’t figured it out already, Blagojevich is a shameless self-promoter. He used state-paid ads about sick kids to fund his reelection campaign last year, and now he’s planning to use taxpayer-financed ads about women with cancer to fund his battle with the General Assembly. The real lesson here is that absolutely everything this governor says has to be checked, double-checked, and then checked again to make sure he’s telling the truth, because he so rarely does when he holds these splashy news conferences.
Most local reporters who don’t usually cover Blagojevich tend to take him at his word, and most citizens don’t bother looking past the headlines and maybe the first few paragraphs of a story. This has to stop. 

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.
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