New York Times
September 23, 2007
One of the enduring frustrations of presidential elections is that candidates and their parties sound like Tweedledum and Tweedledee on many issues. In 2008, when it comes to health care, which is emerging as a defining domestic issue, voters will find stark differences in philosophy and commitment between Democrats and Republicans.
The three leading Democratic candidates all want to achieve universal or near universal health insurance coverage. The four leading Republican candidates espouse no such goal and barely mention the uninsured. The Democrats are willing to put substantial federal money into health care reform. The Republicans are not. The Democrats would expand government health insurance programs and give the federal government a greater role in regulating the insurance industry. The Republicans generally want to shrink federal programs and free the insurance industry from what they consider regulatory shackles.
Compared with these sharp differences between the two parties, the distinctions between leading candidates within each party are small, mostly a matter of tactics to achieve comparable goals. We far prefer the Democrats’ approach to health insurance, since at least they want to address an issue that must be resolved for reasons of economics, public health and fairness. Sadly, none of the leading candidates, in either party, has the vision or the political courage to propose radical solutions for the big underlying problem behind America’s health care crisis: the inexorably rising costs.
The Republican Candidates
Two Republican candidates have yet to grapple seriously with health care reform. John McCain, running largely on Iraq and national security, has not said anything substantial about health care, nor has he even included it among issues listed on his campaign Web site. Fred Thompson has only a brief paragraph on his Web site in which he opposes new mandates, higher taxes or a Washington-controlled program, and calls for free-market solutions. He has also called for reduced spending on entitlements and says he would have opposed the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Rudolph Giuliani, who leads the Republican field in national polls, has only sketchy plans but has made it clear that he favors free-market approaches and is strongly opposed to what he mislabels as the Democrats’ push for socialized medicine. Borrowing from President Bush, he proposes a tax deduction of up to $15,000 to help families buy private health insurance instead of getting it through their employers. He believes millions of people might choose that option, creating a market in which insurance companies would rush in with affordable policies to cover them, and the nation would begin to move away from the employer-based system that the Democrats are trying to bolster. For the poor, he envisions some combination of vouchers and tax refunds to help buy policies but has given no indication of how much that program would cost or how he would pay for it.
His proposals are not likely to make much of a dent in the ranks of the uninsured. Tax deductions are of little use to low-income people who pay little or no income tax, and insurers are notorious for refusing individual policies to high-risk or chronically ill people. Given Mr. Giuliani’s eagerness to ease regulation of insurance companies it is hard to see how he could make that market work better.
Mitt Romney has the most developed health plan among the Republicans, as one might expect given his prominent role in spurring health care reform in Massachusetts. As governor of that left-leaning state, he helped make Massachusetts a leader in providing universal coverage, mostly by mandating that everyone must buy health insurance or pay a financial penalty. But as a candidate in the Republican primaries he has changed course, disavowing any need for mandates and contending that what was right for Massachusetts would not be right for the country.
Instead of a national reform effort, he wants the 50 states to devise their own plans, but without much financial help from the federal government. He promises federal incentives to help states deregulate their health insurance markets to encourage cheaper policies.
His key proposal at the national level centers on tax deductions to help people pay for health care. He would allow individuals to deduct their out-of-pocket expenditures — and any premiums paid for insurance policies they bought on their own rather than through their employer — from their taxable income. For those who still cannot afford coverage, he would encourage states to redirect money now used for charity care to help low-income people buy private health insurance. There would be no new federal money for this purpose. His advisers estimate the proposals would cost a modest $10 billion a year in reduced revenues to the United States Treasury.
The problem of relying on tax deductions to increase insurance coverage is that they mostly favor the better off. The problem with relying on the states to enact the needed reforms is that the plight of the uninsured would be left to the whims of geography. Few states have the financial resources that allowed Massachusetts to move to universal coverage, and many states lack the expertise to mount a sophisticated program.
The Democratic Candidates
Although Republicans routinely lambaste the Democrats for supporting socialized medicine or government programs in which bureaucrats would dictate your health coverage, the plans put forth by the three leading Democratic candidates — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards — are all very careful to build on the existing system of employer-based coverage supplemented by government programs like Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
None of them is proposing a “single payer” system run by the government. And all bend over backward to reassure people that they can maintain their current coverage if they like it. Their political goal is to head off opposition from those who fear that their own coverage might suffer in the course of covering some 47 million uninsured people.
The Democratic plans have far more similarities than differences. All three would move toward universal coverage and would rely heavily on mandates to do so. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards would require everyone to take out health insurance. That would bring young and healthy people into the system to help subsidize coverage for the more sickly, and would eliminate the problem of “free riders,” who show up uninsured at the emergency room and get very expensive care without paying. Mr. Obama would require parents to get insurance for their children but has no mandate for adults.
All three would require big employers to provide health insurance or contribute to the cost of covering their employees outside the workplace. But they differ in the treatment of small businesses, whose opposition helped derail the last big reform effort in 1993. Mr. Edwards is the toughest. He would require small businesses to provide insurance coverage or help pay for coverage elsewhere. Mr. Obama would exempt them from any mandate. Mrs. Clinton, in what looks suspiciously like a bribe to buy small business support, promises them a tax credit for providing coverage.
The Clinton plan would cost an estimated $110 billion a year, the Edwards plan $90 billion to $120 billion, the Obama plan $50 billion to $65 billion. All three would finance their programs partly by rolling back Bush-era tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year and partly with debatable savings they would get through cost-cutting.
All three would require insurers to accept everyone without regard to pre-existing conditions, would provide tax subsidies to low-income people, and would establish purchasing pools to help individuals get low group rates.
There would be a menu of options for people dissatisfied with their current policies because of high costs or limited benefits, including both private health plans and a public program that would compete alongside them. That would provide an interesting test of whether government or private plans are more effective and popular, a matchup that critics of “government-run” programs seem determined to avoid.
The Clinton plan has an innovative proposal to limit the premiums that families have to pay to a certain percentage of their income, as yet undefined. That is a welcome protection for consumers but could cause problems if medical costs continue to rise far faster than wages.
All of the plans, both Republican and Democratic, fail to provide a plausible solution to the problem that has driven health care reform to the fore as a political issue: the inexorably rising costs that drive up insurance rates and force employers to cut back on coverage or charge higher premiums. All of the plans acknowledge the need to restrain costs, but most of the remedies they offer are not likely to do much.
Electronic medical records to eliminate errors and increase efficiency, more preventive care to head off serious diseases, and better coordination of patients suffering multiple, chronic illnesses are all worthy proposals, but there is scant evidence they will reduce costs. Proposals to import drugs from abroad, allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, restrain malpractice expenses, increase competition among health plans, and empower consumers to shop more wisely for medical care might help a bit. But many experts doubt that any of this will truly put the brakes on escalating health care costs.
No top candidate in either party has broached more drastic remedies, like limiting the use of expensive new technologies, cutting reimbursements to doctors and hospitals, or forcing people to use health maintenance organizations. And no one has suggested imposing higher taxes on everyone, not just the wealthy, to finance universal coverage. These solutions are not even discussed on the campaign trail lest they alienate voters and interest groups.
At this stage, the various plans should be considered as broad outlines of where the candidates want to go, with details to be worked out later. Voters who put a high priority on covering all or most of the uninsured will prefer the Democrats’ approach, as we do. The chief danger is that the Democrats have a tendency to imply that everyone can be covered with good benefit packages without inconveniencing anyone but the wealthy. Their cost and savings assumptions will need thorough analysis when more detailed plans emerge.
Voters who put a higher priority on reshaping the health care system along free-market lines than on achieving universal coverage will prefer the Republican plans. Those plans’ likely impact on costs will also need to be analyzed when more details emerge. The “magic of the market” may be less than magical.
Given the wide split between Republican and Democratic approaches, the polarized politics in Washington, and the overriding need to find a way out of the morass in Iraq, it will be an uphill battle to achieve consensus on health care any time soon. But at least voters will have a clear choice of which way the candidates are headed.