December 14, 2007

Plans vary, but candidates all have answers to health care questions

By Kellie Ell
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - Miles Fawcett’s daughter Serena was 9 weeks old when she was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a rare condition in newborns in which the bile duct is either missing or not working. In January, Fawcett had part of his liver removed and transplanted to his little girl. Now 1½ years old, Serena is healthy.

“She’s caught up with all her milestones,” Fawcett said. “She’s walking, talking, running.”

Fawcett, 38, considers himself one of the lucky ones. The operation, which cost “well over a million dollars,” set him and his family back only a few thousand dollars.

“We were in a situation with good health insurance,” said the small-business owner. “If you have good health care, then we have a good system. But if you cannot afford that, there are a multitude of problems. It cost what it costs. It doesn’t scale down to people’s means.”

Fawcett has not made a decision yet on who he will vote for, for president. But he said, “health care is a factor.”

He’s not alone.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg released a poll that said 19 percent of Americans feel health care is the most important issue candidates need to address. Only the war in Iraq and the economy drew higher numbers.

Other polls have found similar results, prompting the 16 presidential contenders to affirm their positions about health care reforms.

The biggest dividing line is that Democrats are pushing for universal health care, while most of the Republican candidates oppose mandated health insurance.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton made waves in the early 1990s under her husband’s administration when she wrote a program to make health care available to all Americans. While the legislation failed, it promoted the framework for Clinton’s and other Democrat candidates’ health care proposals.

In essence, the Democrats’ plans would require all Americans to be insured, regardless of pre-existing health conditions. Payments would be on sliding-scale based on income. Americans would have access to the same plans as members of Congress have, but could keep their existing plans. And health care would be more focused on preventing the root of illnesses.

Some of the plans differ - but not by much.

Delaware Sen. Joe Biden calls for all children to be insured before adults are considered. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel promised Americans would not pay individually for health benefits, which would be funded through a retail sales tax.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said he will lower the price of “skyrocketing health care” by guaranteeing that all Americans will qualify for insurance, regardless of their current health, by creating new public insurance programs. He plans to expand the eligibility for programs like Medicaid and require all employers to contribute toward health coverage for their workers. He also calls for all children to have health coverage while focusing on prevention and health education.

Republicans have a different plan brewing.

For the most part, Republicans resist required health insurance. Instead, they would like to increase incentives for people to buy insurance and make more medical expenses tax deductible. They would also reform the tax code and transform employer- or government-based health care plans to consumer-based systems in which individuals have more control.

For example, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said the U.S. needs health care that “empowers the U.S. consumer” by providing more health-care information online, such as a range of doctor’s fees, more options and “free market solutions.”

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas posted similar views on his Web site: “The federal government will not suddenly become efficient managers if universal health care is instituted. Government health care only means long waiting periods, lack of choice, poor quality and frustration. Socialized medicine will not magically work here.”

Sen. John McCain of Arizona told a Washington audience at a Healthcare 2008 Presidential Candidate forum in October that as president he is “not going to force Americans” to have health insurance.

“I don’t think that is the role of the government,” he said. “If it is affordable and available, then it is a choice. I’d like to see all Americans go to college and all Americans own a home, but I’m not going to require it. The majority of Americans today without insurance are healthy young Americans who choose not to have it.”

The one Republican exception is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who sounds more like the Democrats.

Romney wants to extend health insurance to all Americans through market reforms, such as making health care expenses tax deductible. Romney called for “no more free rides” for the uninsured on his Web site. Instead, he wants to help the “truly needy” buy private health insurance.

In 2006, as governor, Romney and the Massachusetts legislature enacted a plan that required all uninsured adults to purchase health care by 2007 or face a fine similar to the fine for not having car insurance.

Others are also getting in the debate.

Controversial filmmaker Michael Moore shocked audiences over the summer with the release of his newest documentary “Sicko,” focusing on what he called the evils within the American health care system.

“There are 10 million Americans suffering under this system,” Moore said during a Washington press conference in November via a satellite from Michigan. “We don’t call a lot of things in this country taxes, but they are. So you’re paying for insurance and you don’t get it. At least with the mob you pay for protection and you get it!”

The Mayo Clinic Health Policy Center has been touring the country, talking to people and “looking for solutions to the health care problem,” said Nora O’Sullivan, the center’s public affairs consultant. The center expects to release the results in February.

“Most people think everyone should have some kind of health care coverage, or access to the health care system,” she said.

Fawcett pays a thousand dollars a month for health insurance for his family. While he is grateful his daughter is now healthy, he admits he is among the privileged who not only can afford such high rates but who also has access to good health insurance.

“I know people who are clobbered by the costs,” he said. “Something with the health care system needs to change.”

Return to the Frontpage