The health-care issue has awakened after a five-year sleep. Ever since President Clinton's sweeping national health reform plan went down in flames in 1994, health care has been on the back burner while activists work without fanfare on smaller health initiatives, some of which have been passed.
On Wednesday Clinton announced that he will try to get Congress to pass a $110-billion, 10-year measure to move 5 million more people off the rolls of the uninsured. This came after an announcement Tuesday that he also wants tax credits for long-term care insurance and the announcement that the Health Insurance Association of America has begun a $1-million media campaign to push for coverage for the 44 million uninsured Americans.
"I am elated that health care is an issue in the campaign," Clinton told reporters in the Oval Office. "It is a good thing. It's an issue in people's lives."
Unlike in 1993 and 1994, most of these proposals take an incremental approach to the insured problem. Clinton's plan would only handle 5 million of the 44 million uninsured. And his plan is taken directly from Vice President Al Gore's proposal.
Gore's proposal goes further than Clinton's but not as far as former Sen. Bill Bradley's, which promises universal coverage. Few politicians other than Bradley have come forward with anything resembling Clinton's complete overhaul of the health-care system.
A new survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health supports the decisions of candidates to pay attention to health care. And it validates the decision to take it slowly. Health care was cited as a top issue by 28 percent of voters surveyed. That is the highest that health care has scored on such as survey in recent years. In 1998, for example, health care was ranked highest by only 12 percent of the population.
And, according to the new survey, health care will be especially important in capturing the women's vote. Of those who picked health care as a top issue, 61 percent were women. But the public doesn't agree on how to cover the nation's uninsured. Of the registered voters Kaiser surveyed, 43 percent favored making "a limited effort" that would not result in a tax increase. And 39 percent would support insuring all Americans, even if a tax increase were needed, while 12 percent supported the status quo.
The concentration on health care is most notable on the Democratic side of the campaign trail. While Bradley and Gore have gone at it over whose health plan would help the most people and is most feasible, the Republican contenders have been almost silent on the issue.
Again, Kaiser's survey validates that this is an important primary strategy for both sides. The survey found a 23 percentage point gap (56 percent to 33 percent) between Democratic and Republican registered voters who say covering the uninsured is a top priority for using any budget surplus.
While the GOP contenders have been quiet on the stump, congressional Republicans insist they had a plan to increase coverage last year but the president nixed it. "Congress's top health-care priority is helping more Americans get health insurance, but unfortunately, the president last year vetoed our plan do that," says Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
The GOP congressional plan provided 100-percent tax deductions for people who buy health insurance and an expansion of medical savings accounts. But it did not include any subsidies for people who could not afford health insurance.
Clinton's proposal builds on the Child Health Insurance Plan under which states help insure children either by getting them on Medicaid or through a subsidized program for children whose parents are poor but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. Under the new plan, Clinton wants to add 400,000 children to those plans and would insure them through age 20 (More than 2 million are covered now.) And he would add their parents to the program.
Another proposal, ignored by Congress last year, would resurrect Clinton's plan to allow workers as young as 55 to buy into the Medicare program. The president would also give a 20-percent tax credit to small businesses as an incentive for them to offer health insurance.