ABC News' Rick Klein Reports: With debate raging in Washington over children's health insurance, congressional Democrats found a new way to make their case for an expansion last weekend: Rather than have a senator or a congressman respond to President Bush's weekly radio address, they decided to have a child who was helped by the program speak directly to the public.
But the 12-year-old boy whom Democrats chose as their poster child is now at the center of a firestorm in Washington and beyond. Conservative bloggers who uncovered some details of the family's finances are blasting the family, calling the fact that they rely on federal insurance an example of how the State Children's Health Insurance Program has expanded beyond its original intent.
According to Senate Democratic aides, some bloggers have made repeated phone calls to the home of 12-year-old Graeme Frost, demanding information about his family's private life. On Monday, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused GOP leadership aides of "pushing falsehood" in an effort to distract from the political battle over S-CHIP.
"This is a perverse distraction from the issue at hand," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, D-Nev. "Instead of debating the merits of providing health care to children, some in GOP leadership and their right-wing friends would rather attack a 12-year-old boy and his sister who were in a horrific car accident."
Manley cited an e-mail sent to reporters by a Senate Republican leadership aide, summing up recent blog traffic about the boy's family. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to comment on Manley's charge that GOP aides were complicit in spreading disparaging information about Frosts.
In making the case for a proposed expansion of the S-CHIP program, Democrats found a boy who seemed like an ideal poster child in Graeme Frost, a Baltimore native whose family does not have private health insurance.
When Graeme and his sister were seriously injured in a 2004 car crash, their parents relied on S-CHIP coverage to help them recover. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office became aware of the Frosts through a healthcare interest group, FamiliesUSA, Democratic leaders turned to Graeme to deliver the party's weekly radio address Sept. 29.
"If it weren't for CHIP, I might not be here today," Frost said in the address, which was written by Senate Democratic aides. "We got the help we needed because we had health insurance for us through the CHIP program. But there are millions of kids out there who don't have CHIP, and they wouldn't get the care that my sister and I did if they got hurt."
But after a largely positive story about Frost appeared in the Baltimore Sun, conservative-leaning bloggers began focusing on details of Frost's family situation. They suggested the family makes the conservative argument -- that the children's health insurance program has strayed from its original purpose by subsidizing healthcare for middle-class families, not just poor children.
A blogger on FreeRepublic.com discovered that Frost and his sister, Gemma, attend a private school where tuition costs $20,000 a year. Their father, Halsey, is a self-employed woodworker, meaning that if his family doesnâ€™t have health insurance, itâ€™s because Halsey Frost -- as his own boss -- chooses not to purchase it for himself.
"One has to wonder that if time and money can be found to remodel a home, send kids to exclusive private schools, purchase commercial property and run your own business . . . maybe money can be found for other things," a blogger with the handle "icwhatudo" wrote on FreeRepublic.
That posting was widely circulated in the blogosphere, making great fodder for conservatives who argue that President Bush was right to veto the Democratsâ€™ bill expanding S-CHIP.
"People make choices and it's clear the Frosts have made choice to invest in property and a business, but not in private health insurance," Mark Tapscott, editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner, wrote on his blog.
But Manley say conservative bloggers didn't dig deep enough. It turns out that the Frost children attend Baltimoreâ€™s Park School on near-full scholarships; they pay roughly $500 per child per year in tuition, he said.
Like many small-business owners, Halsey Frost can't even afford to provide health insurance to himself, Manley said.
"Last year, the Frost's made $45,000 combined," Manley said. "Over the past few years they have made no more than $50,000 combined depending on Halsey's ability to find work."
The Frost family did not immediately return calls seeking comment.