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Backlash on Health Costs

September 20, 2002

The United States is the only major industrialized country in the world that lacks universal health care. As anyone who witnessed the meltdown of the Clinton administration's universal health coverage plan in the early 1990s can attest, leaders in Washington have not agreed on how--or, more significantly, whether--the nation should guarantee medical access. However, in recent weeks, in the shadows cast by the media's spotlight on Iraq, a quiet but powerful coalition of regional and national leaders has been building in favor of making mandatory universal health-care coverage next year's No. 1 domestic policy priority.

The coalition is composed of large employers--stunned by a twelvefold health-care premium increase in the last decade (even after adjusting for inflation)--and of pension funds, including the California Public Employees' Retirement System, or CalPERS, which have been stuck with even larger tabs. (California taxpayers pump $1.58 billion a year into health-care premiums for CalPERS' 1.2 million members, an amount expected to double by 2005.)

Demand for radical health insurance reform also is being driven by health-care consumers, who are beginning to see the inadequacy of the timid "solutions" that Washington has put on the table so far.

State leaders can implement one significant, if admittedly interim, solution right now: They can use billions of federal dollars--set aside by Congress in 1997--to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program (called Healthy Families in California) to cover not just children from low-income families but their parents as well. Unfortunately, some governors, including California's Gray Davis, are waffling on whether to approve such an expansion.

States cannot, however, solve the problem on their own. That's why Americans should demand that national candidates seeking their votes in the November election spell out what they plan to do to rein in medical costs and help the 40 million Americans who go without medical coverage. There is plenty of room for debate about the best way to do this. The conservative Heritage Foundation, for instance, wants any universal coverage plan to be managed by private insurers and financed by tax credits. Most liberal groups think the government should administer the new benefit.

Here's what's increasingly clear to all: The growth in health-care premiums and in the numbers of people without insurance represents an economic drag that business cannot long endure and a level of unnecessary suffering a civilized nation cannot in good conscience allow.

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