When Halsey and Bonnie Frost agreed to go public with how the State Children's Health Insurance Program helped them after a car crash left two of their children comatose, the Baltimore couple expected to hear from critics of government-funded health care.
But while the Frosts were helping a bipartisan majority in Congress sell a plan to expand the program, they were not prepared for comments such as this one, posted over the weekend on the conservative Web site Redstate:
"If federal funds were required [they] could die for all I care. Let the parents get second jobs, let their state foot the bill or let them seek help from private charities. ... I would hire a team of PIs and find out exactly how much their parents made and where they spent every nickel. Then I'd do everything possible to destroy their lives with that info."
So has begun the education of the Frosts, the young family of six who volunteered to advocate for the program for moderate-income families - the expansion has been approved by Congress but vetoed by President Bush - and now find themselves the focus of a nasty national debate.
The onslaught began over the weekend, a week after 12-year-old Graeme Frost delivered the Democrats' weekly radio address with a plea to Bush to sign the bill. A contributor to the conservative Web site Free Republic noted Graeme's enrollment in the private Park School and the sale of a smaller rowhouse on the Frosts' block for $485,000 this year and questioned whether the family should be taking advantage of the state program.
That post was picked up by the National Review Online and other Web sites. By Monday, Rush Limbaugh was discussing the family's earnings and assets on the air, and the blogger Michelle Malkin was writing about her visit to Halsey Frost's East Baltimore warehouse and her drive past the family's Butchers Hill rowhouse. Liberal bloggers, meanwhile, were complaining that the Frosts were being "swift-boated."
"It's really frustrating," said Bonnie Frost, 41, who stated she is upset by the angry Internet posts, e-mails and telephone calls targeting the family. "The whole point of it for me was that this program helped my family, and I wanted it to help others. That's the message, and I can't believe the way the spotlight has been taken off of that."
"It's a distractive technique," said Halsey Frost, also 41. Speaking from their cluttered front room yesterday, the Frosts said they would continue to advocate for government-funded health care.
The Sun, which published articles about the Frosts when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced Bonnie and 9-year-old Gemma at a news conference last month and again when Graeme delivered the radio address, also has drawn criticism from posters on conservative Web sites for not reporting the details of the family's financial circumstances more fully.
At issue is the proposal to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program - also known as SCHIP - which provides coverage for 6.6 million children from families not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Democrats, joined by some Republicans, voted last month to expand coverage to 4 million more children at a cost of $35 billion over five years. Bush has vetoed the bill.
While the president has called for negotiations on the measure, Democrats and their allies have launched a campaign to pressure Republicans into helping to override the veto. The attempt is scheduled for next week.
The Frosts joined the debate through family acquaintance Vinnie DeMarco, the president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative. DeMarco introduced them to the pro-SCHIP organization Families USA, which put them in touch with Pelosi's office.
Bonnie Frost was driving children Zeke, Graeme and Gemma in Baltimore County in December 2004 when the family SUV hit a patch of black ice and slammed into a tree. Graeme sustained a brain stem injury; Gemma suffered a cranial fracture.
The family relied on SCHIP during the more than five months that the children were hospitalized. Graeme had to learn again to walk and talk, his parents say; he remains weak on his left side and speaks with a lisp. Gemma is blind in her left eye; she has difficulty with memory, learning and speech, and sees a behavioral psychologist to help her deal with her frustration.
"Her personality has changed," Bonnie Frost said yesterday. "She's not the same girl."
Bonnie and Gemma Frost joined Pelosi at the Capitol Hill news conference before the SCHIP vote. Then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked Graeme to record the radio address.
It was the news coverage of that broadcast that set off the blogo- sphere. A pseudonymous contributor to Free Republic cataloged the $20,000 cost of tuition at the Park School, the $160,000 Halsey Frost paid for his warehouse in 1999 and the $485,000 for which a neighbor sold his home in March. Links were provided to photos of the Park School's 44,000-square- foot Wyman Arts Center and the Frosts' 1992 wedding announcement in The New York Times.
Soon strangers were posting accusatory messages describing Halsey Frost as a business owner who lived on a street of half-million-dollar homes, worked out of his own commercial property and paid to send his children to private school, yet still took advantage of government-funded health care.
"Bad things happen to good people, and they cause financial problems and tough choices," Mark Steyn wrote on the National Review Online. "But, if this is the face of the 'needy' in America, then no-one is not needy."
The Redstate contributor was less civil.
"Hang 'em. Publically," the contributor wrote. "Let 'em twist in the wind and be eaten by ravens. Then maybe the bunch of socialist patsies will think twice."
The Frosts say the description of their family's circumstances now circulating is misleading. Halsey, they say, is a self-employed woodworker - he has no employees - while Bonnie works part time for a medical publishing firm. Together, they say, they earn between $45,000 and $50,000 a year.
That would make the Frosts eligible for Maryland's Children's Health Program, which is open to families that earn no more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $82,830 a year for a family of six.
The Frosts declined to show The Sun their 2006 income tax returns, and the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would not confirm their enrollment in the program. But John G. Folkemer, the deputy secretary for health care financing, said yesterday that applicants must prove their income levels through Social Security numbers or tax returns to be accepted for coverage.
Folkemer said a family's assets are not considered in determining eligibility. Halsey Frost purchased the family home for $55,000 in 1990, according to city records, and refinanced in 2005, he says, to make improvements to accommodate the return of Graeme and Gemma from the hospital. The 1936 brick rowhouse, on a side street near Patterson Park, has an assessed value of $263,140.
Halsey Frost purchased a 1920 warehouse in East Baltimore for $160,000 in 1999, according to city records. It is assessed at $160,500. Frost says he is still paying off the mortgages on both properties.
The four Frost children depend on financial aid to attend private school, the Frosts say. In addition, they say, Gemma receives money from the city for special education made necessary by her injuries.
Halsey and Bonnie Frost say they still have no health insurance. Bonnie Frost said she priced coverage recently at $1,200 a month.
Malkin wrote that the Democrats' use of Graeme Frost to deliver the radio address was "poster child abuse"; Limbaugh told listeners that Democrats had "filled this kid's head with lies."
Pelosi fired back yesterday.
"I think that the attack on this family is just breaking new ground and stooping to new lows in terms of what happens in Washington, D.C.," she told reporters. "I think it's a sad statement about how bankrupt some of these people are in their arguments against SCHIP that they attack a 12-year-old."
The Frosts say they stand by their support of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
"I'm just trying to understand this moment of nastiness," Bonnie Frost said. "The nastiness caught me by surprise."
Sun reporter Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.