WASHINGTON — A health care proposal offered last week by Senate Democrats is remarkably close to a Republican plan offered 20 years ago and should appeal to both parties, former Cabinet official Elliot L. Richardson told a House panel Tuesday.
The comments by Richardson, Health, Education and Welfare secretary under President Richard M. Nixon, were echoed at the hearing by Joseph Califano, who was Health and Human Services secretary under President Jimmy Carter. The comments were made as the Democratic leadership is attempting to build support for one of the priorities on its domestic agenda.
The proposal, which is opposed by the Bush Administration and many Republicans who say that it would penalize small businesses, would require all companies to offer their workers health insurance or pay a tax that could range as high as 8% of their payroll.
"In 1971, this was a Nixon Administration proposal--a conservative, middle-of-the road proposal," Richardson told members of the Labor and Human Resources Committee. "I find it ironic that Republicans are attacking Richard Nixon's proposal now."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the committee chairman, spurned the Nixon plan at the time for its reliance on private-sector insurance carriers and instead pushed a sweeping national health insurance scheme with mandatory coverage for everyone.
Neither proposal survived long enough to be tested by a vote in either house of Congress.
Califano praised the Democrats' proposal, saying that it would solve most health care problems. At the same time, he said, it would cost little because it would merely reallocate the $750 billion that Americans pay for health care each year in a more efficient way. It also would help to limit needless, costly and redundant medical procedures and in the long term reduce costs to U.S. industry to make it more competitive in a global market, he said.
That view is not shared by the National Federation of Independent Business, which says that 90% of its members oppose mandated health benefits and 96% oppose an offsetting payroll tax.