Health Issues Will Be ‘Hard to Ignore’ in Election Cycle
Although "almost no issue will be harder, more expensive or more divisive" for President Bush and Congress to address than health care, the New York Times reports that in an election year marked by recession and increased health costs, the issue "will be very hard to ignore." The debate over health care will begin next month when Bush releases his fiscal year 2003 budget. Bush supporters said that the budget will "demonstrate his commitment" to seniors and the uninsured and "embrace" several "credible" health care proposals, including tax credits to help the uninsured purchase health coverage and a prescription drug benefit for seniors as part of broader Medicare reform. However, some analysts question where the president and lawmakers will find funds for "major expansions" of health programs, "given their immense costs, the return of the budget deficit, at least in the short term, and the array of other demands related to national security." Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said, "They're going to want to address these issues because it's right and because of political reasons. But the problem is coming up with the money to do something meaningful. The two big problems -- prescription drugs and the uninsured -- are big ticket items, and the surplus is gone."
According to the Times, congressional Republicans hope that Bush's health care proposals will help them close the "gender gap" with women voters, a group "particularly interested" in health care. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said that Bush "wants to find a way to let the public know that Republicans do support health care, we do want to provide assistance, and we're not just going to go grudgingly along at the last minute with minimal amounts." However, analysts have said that a "serious" prescription drug benefit would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and Democrats have "already begun to warn" that Bush will "rely on cheaper, incremental approaches" such as his pharmacy discount card plan to "avoid spending the money a real drug benefit would cost." The Times reports that "political anxiety among congressional Republicans is especially high" on the issue of prescription drugs, "given the power of older voters in a midterm election because of their higher turnout rate." As a result, the health care numbers in Bush's budget will "carry great political weight" in 2002 and become a "powerful symbol in the debate over whether the Republicans went too far with their tax cuts." Robert Blendon, a Harvard University expert on public opinion and health, predicted that health care issues will "loom large" in the 2002 election. Republican pollster Bill McInturff said that the proportion of voters who favor "radical change" in the U.S. health care system has increased this year, adding that the "anxiety of many middle-class voters over the security of their health insurance" could "jump if the economic downturn persists" (Toner, New York Times, 1/11).