Democrats Upstage Bush With Vote on Universal Health Plan
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Senate Democrats pushed forward a universal health care bill Wednesday that requires employers to contribute to their workers’ coverage, getting the jump on President Bush’s medical insurance proposals expected next week.
The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee approved the Democratic leadership’s bill in a vote that strictly followed party lines.
It was a symbolic action, signaling the Democrats’ desire to have Congress vote on comprehensive health care reform this year. It was intended to upstage the political impact of Bush’s first proposal on the health crisis, a package of tax incentives for the purchase of private insurance which he plans to offer in his State of the Union address.
Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, a sponsor of the bill with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said he hopes to have a full Senate vote on the Democratic measure this year. But before then, tax and finance provisions must be dealt with by the Senate Finance Committee.
Republicans opposed the plan, with most saying the cost would be too high and that the government had no business taking over such a large share of the health care insurance business.
″This is a matter of urgency,″ Mitchell said later on the Senate floor. ″It cannot wait for the turn of the century - or even the next election.″
The 10-7 committee vote was the opening bell of an election year battle over the health care crisis, which has exploded as an issue in recent months. More than 35 million Americans are estimated to be without health insurance, and the costs for those who have it are skyrocketing.
The issue drew the intense political focus of both parties in the aftermath of Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford’s upset victory over Bush’s attorney general, Dick Thornburgh, in the Pennsylvania Senate race last November. Wofford fashioned an effective attack on the current health system, saying access to a doctor should be a right.
The Kennedy-Mitchell bill, called ″HealthAmerica,″ would require all employers to provide health coverage and pay 80 percent of the premiums for all employees, or pay into a government-run program providing coverage for uninsured people whether employed or not.
Employers who don’t provide coverage would pay a payroll tax of 7 percent to 9 percent into the government-run program. Even so, that government coverage system would need additional tax revenues to operate.
″Everyone in America will be covered ... and if they lose their job, they will not lose their coverage,″ Kennedy said.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said the bill should be named ″Bankrupt America.″
But Democrats argued that the costs, which are still in dispute, would be offset by savings resulting from reduced administration and strong measures to limit the increase in health care costs. The rise in health care costs far outstrip the rate of inflation and are driving the insurance crisis.
Labor Secretary Lynn Martin estimated the public plan would cost as much as $36.8 billion in federal spending, after the payroll tax, to support.
Democrats used the occasion to blast Bush and the Republicans for failing to come up with their own plan. Bush is expected to offer tax credits and deductions for the purchase of insurance, proposals that critics say will do little to help the millions who can’t afford or obtain health coverage.
″The same folks that opposed Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are going to be out there pounding the sidewalks saying this is impossible,″ said Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio.
Martin and Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan told the panel in letters that they would recommend Bush veto the bill, if passed.
Despite the committee vote, Democrats are not united on the bill. It falls short of what some want - a single coverage program run by the government and patterned after Canada’s system. But Kennedy said his plan, which would retain the nation’s private insurance system, stands a better chance of gaining approval.
Kennedy, acknowledging a single national system may be inevitable, said the real question is ″whether we’re going to do this incrementally or systematically.″