Md. Mom Aids Bid For Health Coverage

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Maryland family caught in the partisan crossfire over a children's health-care bill in Congress is now stepping back into the divisive debate, advocating this time for state legislation that would expand coverage for adults.

Three weeks ago, after 12-year-old Graeme Frost offered a radio appeal for expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), his family became fodder for conservative bloggers. The Frosts were derided as freeloaders who relied on government insurance for their children while they sent two to private school. Bloggers staked out their Baltimore rowhouse, declaring it too fancy for a family that can't afford to pay for health insurance. Commentator Rush Limbaugh imitated Graeme Frost's voice, damaged in a car accident, and said congressional Democrats were using the boy to "advance a distortion."

Democrats rushed to the boy's defense, accusing conservatives of distorting the family's finances and attacking Graeme unfairly. Gary Trudeau crystallized the fallout in yesterday's Doonesbury comic strip: "It's one thing to Swift-boat a grown man," his cartoon character asks at a faux White House news conference. "But isn't it a bit beyond the pale to attack a 12-year-old boy?"

Yesterday, the boy's mother, Bonnie Frost, stood before a microphone at a Baltimore church, in a peasant shirt and clogs, to make a quiet appeal for broader health coverage in Maryland.

"My husband and I cannot afford health insurance," she said, as advocates announced a new radio ad featuring her. The plan, to be debated as the legislature convenes in Annapolis next week, "would help a lot of working families like us."

She said she didn't hesitate to join the Maryland effort, despite the events of the past three weeks. "I'm not going to let the nasty bloggers scare me away from standing up for what's important," she said yesterday.

Much of America now knows the family's story: Graeme and his sister Gemma, 9, suffered brain injuries when the family car hit a patch of ice and spun out of control three years ago. Their hospital bills and lengthy recovery were covered by SCHIP. Graeme gave the Democratic response to President Bush's radio address Sept. 29, asking him to reconsider his veto of a Democratic bill to expand the children's health program. Graeme and his mother stood next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at the bill signing.

Things quickly got ugly for the Frosts, who together make about $45,000 a year. Television crews camped out in front of their house and knocked on the door. They received hate mail and e-mails. The blogger Michelle Malkin drove by the family home and by Halsey Frost's warehouse in East Baltimore, searching for clues to a middle-class life. One blogger who calls himself Icwhatudo posted what he dug up about the Frosts on the Free Republic Web site: Graeme attends an expensive private school, the couple's 1992 wedding was the subject of a New York Times announcement and a house in the Frosts' Butchers Hill neighborhood sold for $485,000 last spring.

"At first I was really surprised that people would do this to us," she said. "I thought they must be desperate to trash us for sending out a good message."

The criticism, in many ways, goes to the core of what Bush and many Republicans say is wrong with SCHIP. Expanding the program, they say, could encourage people who can afford health insurance to rely on the government instead.

The Frosts, both 41, say they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to buy health insurance. Halsey is a self-employed woodworker whose business failed in the late 1990s. Bonnie works part time for a biomedical publishing company, which has seven employees and no insurance plan. Her employer is typical of the companies that would be helped by a plan supported by Democratic leaders in Annapolis that would subsidize small businesses in addition to expanding Medicaid coverage for adults.

The Frosts' four children -- Gemma; Zeke, 14; Graeme; and his twin brother, Max -- qualify for Maryland's children's health insurance program because their parents earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level for a family of six (about $55,000).

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