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health selection 2004

Democrats make healthcare push

Democrat vs. Republican approach to this issue.
The Washington Times

Analysis: Dems make healthcare push

By Christian Bourge
UPI Congressional and Policy Correspondent

Washington, DC, May. 10 (UPI) -- Democrats are attacking the close relationship between the Republican Party and the pharmaceutical, health services and insurance industries, saying President Bush and other national officeholders have protected these interests in exchange for hundreds of millions in campaign donations.

As national "Cover the Uninsured Week" got underway Monday, however, with both parties planning to address healthcare issues and a host of bills to be spotlighted by members of both parties in Congress, Democrats are betting a great deal of political capital on this quid pro quo argument and overall policy issue that, while important to voters, is unlikely to be a top-tier election issue that swings undecided voters.

Healthcare costs increased 9.3 percent in 2002, four times the rate of inflation and a continuation of an overall trend.

At the same time, annual out-of-pocket costs for the insured are on the rise, making the issue one both parties are keen to be seen as attempting to do something about.

Apparent Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts kicked of four days of focusing on healthcare issues Monday by releasing a study prepared by his campaign staff, which found health insurance premiums have increased more than $2,700 per American family over the past four years, quadruple the rate of income growth.

He said that "it's not acceptable" to do nothing about the rising cost of healthcare as Bush has done.

While Kerry could gain mileage on the issue, healthcare will likely play second fiddle in the minds of voters come November to more headline grabbing issues like economy and war in Iraq.

In addition, the Democratic record on health insurance policy shows neither party can escape criticisms for failing to address adequately the problem of the uninsured in the United States.

Nevertheless, as part of this Democratic push on the issue, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said Monday in a conference call with reporters organized by the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry campaign, that the Bush campaign and national Republican candidates have taken an estimated $112 million from corporate medical and pharmaceutical interests since 1999.

In return for that investment, the former Democratic presidential candidate said the Bush White House and Hill Republicans have placed the interests of pharmaceutical companies and the insurance industry over the healthcare needs of everyday Americans.

"This is a wise investment for these companies," Gephardt said. "They have gotten everything they want from this administration and out of this Republican Congress."

Gephardt noted that despite a healthcare crisis in American that has resulted in 8.5 million people losing their health coverage since Bush took office, Republicans have enacted a Medicare prescription drug bill that provides the best examples of the protectionist practices of the GOP.

He said while the Congressional Budget Office found that 2.7 million seniors would be dropped from their private retiree insurance coverage as a result of the new prescription drug coverage, the measure gives $8.9 billion for employers to provide health insurance for employees and $6 billion in subsidies to the insurance industry.

"It was money that is, in essence, a gift to these industries," said Gephardt.

The same bill blocks federal Medicare officials from negotiating with drug companies for lower prescription prices, something the Department of Veterans Affairs does to lower drug costs for former military personnel and a common practice in the insurance industry, which Gephardt said will provide the industry an additional $129 billion in profits over the next eight years.

Gephardt and the DNC are also citing Bush's promise to support a Patients' Bill of Rights as proof of the protection of healthcare industries because Republicans scuttled the plan in 2002 over the issue of allowing citizens the right to sue their insurance companies in state courts.

Kerry's healthcare proposal would repeal the Bush tax cut for taxpayers earning more than $200,000 a year and use that money to pay for a 10-year, $650-billion plan whereby the federal government would assume catastrophic healthcare costs for all Americans.

Democrats say the move would reduce health insurance costs for individuals and corporate America while extending insurance coverage to 27 million more Americans.

A study released by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured released a study Monday that found that healthcare spending would increase by $48.2 billion annually if the 44 million uninsured Americans had coverage.

For his part, President Bush has recently come out in favor of a broader use of information technology to reduce healthcare administrative costs, a proposal endorsed by Hill Republicans and healthcare policy experts.

Although generally considered a good idea by healthcare policy experts, they also say a greater reliance on technology will cost a great deal in upfront costs and not address arguably the biggest driver increasing healthcare costs, the rising costs of the care itself.

Congressional Republicans also are taking the issue seriously this week with the Senate Republican Task Force on Health Care Costs and the Uninsured set to release recommendations Tuesday for action on the issue, following a reported six months of study.

A spokesman for Senate Health Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R- N.H., told UPI that the recommendations are a blueprint for action.

Among the proposals are old-hat GOP policy stances that have not fared well in the Senate this year, such as medical liability reforms and medical savings accounts, along with what are described as new targeted approaches like a student-specific incentive aimed at getting young adults insured, as well as broader market reforms.

The GOP-controlled congressional Joint Economic Committee will also hold a hearing Thursday examining potential ways to lower healthcare costs for both the insured and uninsured.

The impact of government regulations are expected to be the major focus on the hearings as the committee has found that such regulations are imposed at a cost of $130 billion annually.

While Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has said that medical reform and access to care are a top priority of his, no action is expected on the recommendations this year.

"We'd like to be optimistic, said one GOP aide, but we have to be realistic."

While the Bush campaign did not return calls requesting comment on the Democrats' allegations of protecting industry donors, there are clear limitations to their criticism stemming from the party's own actions on the issue.

While Democrats cite the fact that 2.3 million people gained health insurance during the last two years of the Clinton administration as proof of their action on the issue, it is generally accepted that the rise was largely the result of the booming economy, which led to an increase of jobs, the central source of medical insurance for working Americans.

Inroads on the problem were made in the Clinton administration, but the defining moment of Clinton-era healthcare policy remains then-first lady Hillary Clinton's disastrous health reform initiative.

The campaign donation numbers and actions taken by the largely GOP-controlled Congress during Bush's tenure certainly should raise eyebrows, but the righteous indignation of Democrats on the issue should also be met with some skepticism.

For one, the Democratic Party record on the special interest protection front is not stellar, with a long history of quid pro quo in both parties when they have the ability to provide protection for large donors.

While their attacks on Bush administration policy represent genuine concern on the part of Democrats, the fact that they have tied it to donations, as opposed to the faultiness of the GOP approach, is a politically understandable but factually questionable move when both sides of the equation are examined.

When asked by UPI whether the type of allegations being leveled are reflective of the type of political protectionism that Republicans as well as Democrats have long provided to large specials interest donors, Gephardt said that it is a question of degree.

"Not of this magnitude, this gross," said Gephardt about the Democrats' history of special interest protectionism.

"This is so obvious, that they are giving millions and millions of dollars to get what they want, and they (Republicans) are getting it and nobody seems to be paying attention," he said.

It is that lack of attention that shows the limits of trying to get the political mileage against Bush and congressional Republicans they clearly hope to from healthcare policy.

While obviously an important one, Gephardt said himself that the issue is not a headline grabber, calling it a major but silent one.