UNINSURED: The Buzz Word for Campaign 2000
As Americans have become more concerned about "the plight of the uninsured," the issue already has begun to make a major impact on the 2000 elections. According to a bipartisan poll released last week, 70% of Americans claimed they would pay higher taxes to ensure universal health insurance. Celinda Lake, a Democratic consultant who co-sponsored the poll, said, "What we have seen in the last two years is really a remarkable surge in this issue." Several newspapers and news magazines examined health care as a campaign issue and its new prominence over the weekend and in today's editions. The Ph iladelphia Inquirer noted three major reasons for the "renewed sense of urgency" about the uninsured: despite the nation's long economic boom, the ranks of the uninsured continue to expand; most Americans have at least indirectly been touched by the problem, as shown by the 29% who said they had been without insurance at some point in the last three years and the 43% who said a family member or someone they knew had been without insurance; and the fact that most of the uninsured are not "deadbeats," but instead are members of a low-income family. Patrick Hays, president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, said, "This is our nation's scandal. It is something that we should be ashamed of." The Inquirer discusses the main points of both Bill Bradley's and Al Gore's plans and notes that Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) has mentioned little about health care, with the exception of supporting MSAs. According to the poll, 54% said "they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who wants to extend health insurance to all." Still, Thomas Donahoe, U.S. Chamber of Commerce president, said, "If the answers were easy, we wouldn't have this problem" (Rankin, 10/18). Some observers went a bit further in their assessment of the problem. Based on present conditions, including double-digit increases in health insurance premiums, as well as the increasing ranks of the uninsured, Robert Davidge, CEO of a Baton Rouge, LA hospital, predicted a "nationalized system of health care" by 2005. Speaking to students at Louisiana State University, Davidge said, "It's not a popular position, but I think it's going to happen" (Griggs, Baton Rouge Advocate, 10/17).
Many opinionmakers have been weighing in:
- Paul Starr, a senior health care adviser to the White House in 1993, writes in the Washington Post, "Reading the headlines, someone might think, 'Didn't we already go through this once?' But actually, health care has reemerged as a compelling political issues under conditions almost exactly opposite of those in the early 1990s. At that time, there was a sense of a gathering crisis in health care; now there's a gathering opportunity -- or, at least, there may be, depending on how current political battles play out." Starr notes that "the health reform efforts emerging today are different from those of the early '90s, precisely because the earlier ones failed, and those interested in change have tried to learn from experience." Starr also predicts that a "Democratic Congress and president are far more likely to take up the issue, and if the next president turns out to be Bradley, he would find it difficult to walk away from the single biggest promise of his campaign" (10/17).
- 1999 "is the year of the health consumer," Robert Kuttner writes in The American Prospect/San Diego Union-Tribune. He asserts that while President Clinton, Congress, as well as Bradley and Gore, have proposed health care reforms such as a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients and universal health care, "none of this is likely to come to pass any time soon." Because drug manufacturers and "their Republican allies" want additional coverage, but no serious price reforms," new coverage would either be astronomically expensive or too skimpy, leaving consumers to make up the difference out of pocket." He writes that Bradley and Gore "are talking a good game. But the traumatic effect of the failure of the Clinton health plan, coupled with the budget constraints of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, means that any new health coverage is likely to be fragmentary and token."
- "The medically uninsured have always been with us. Yet, they have not always been a cause for civic alarm," Jacob Hacker, the author of The Road to Nowhere: the Genesis of President Clinton's Plan for Health Security, argues in the Los Angeles Times. Hacker admits that the "standard explanation for renewed interest in the uninsured is that the problem is getting worse." He asserts that "America has an opportunity to learn from its past failures" and that "the real challenge of step-by-step reforms" will be "to think how they will fit together and to anticipate any unintended consequences" (10/17).