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Jewish World Review April 17, 2001 / 24 Nissan, 5761

Lawrence M. O'Rourke

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Consumer Reports

Bush plan to help uninsured -- SOME of the 44 million Americans who lack health insurance might be able to get it this year with a federal government incentive of a tax credit.

President Bush has proposed a $71 billion, 10-year program that would be part of his $1.6 trillion tax cut, and politicians from both parties say the idea has a good chance of approval.

"Action is needed," said Mitchell Daniels, Bush's budget director. "We want to get people insured as soon as possible in a way that is consistent with individual choice."

Republicans and Democrats in Congress share a consensus that something should be done about a problem that leaves millions of American adults and children outside the health care system, except when they're very ill and are forced to go to a hospital emergency room.

"The uninsured are more than four times as likely to delay care ... and experience a mortality rate 25 percent higher than insured individuals with similar characteristics," said Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn.

Democratic Rep. Fortney (Pete) Stark of California said the topic of health insurance is "back on our agenda, right up there with a prescription drug benefit, and that is good."

Medical schools and primary teaching hospitals that provide a disproportionate share of unpaid care to the uninsured and poor are seeing an increase in the number of patients walking through their doors, according to a new study by the Commonwealth Fund of New York.

The fund said that many community hospitals are less open to serving the uninsured than they once were.

While united that the problem is serious and reaches out for a solution, Republicans and Democrats disagree over how to provide relief.

Republicans contend that Democrats want to create an entitlement that could create financial burdens for Washington as it tries to deal with Medicare and Social Security.

Democrats argue that the Republican plan could be a bonanza for the health insurance industry and small employers while offering little help to the vast majority of the insured.

But congressional analysts expect the GOP approach to prevail. It has both the president and the powerful health insurance industry, and it is picking up some Democratic sponsors.

In the House, the measure is sponsored by Republican leader Richard Armey of Texas and Democratic Rep. William Lipinski of Illinois. The Senate sponsors are Republican Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey.

Their plan, called Fair Care for the Uninsured, would create a refundable tax credit for the purchase of private health insurance. Individuals could get a credit of up to $1,000; families could get up to $3,000.

The credit would be indexed for inflation and would apply toward the purchase of any health insurance plan.

It's unfair when Americans with jobs are treated different from Americans without jobs when it comes to health insurance, said Santorum. "This tax disparity prevents millions of Americans from receiving quality, affordable health care," he said.

Torricelli said it is unfair when employers are allowed to deduct the cost of health insurance as a business expense, but employees are not required to include health insurance costs as taxable income.

"This effectively amounts to a $125 billion per year federal subsidy for employer-provided health insurance, while Americans who purchase their own health insurance must use after-tax dollars," Torricelli said.

"We need to give individuals and the self-employed the same health insurance tax benefits enjoyed by corporations," said Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn. "This way, individuals can afford to shop the marketplace for the highest quality at the best price."

Santorum and Torricelli said their plan would cost $15.8 billion in 2002, providing health insurance access to 11.9 million workers and spouses, 5.7 million children, and 1 million retirees. They said that with inflation, the cost would be $160.1 billion over 10 years.

That's more than Bush has planned, but Daniels said the White House was willing to negotiate the final amount with Congress.

Mario Rodriguez, a small business owner in San Clemente, Calif., said that the Fair Care plan would be especially helpful to Hispanics "who move from one job to another in the service industry."

Robert Deposada, executive director of the Hispanic Business Roundtable, said Hispanics would be likely to buy their health insurance through pools organized by churches and community groups that would be able to bargain with the industry for lower rates. But many analysts think that little, if any, insurance, could be purchased by individuals for $1,000, or by families for $3,000.

The average annual price of a health insurance policy for a family of four exceeds $6,300, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Armey said that competitive insurance companies would drop their prices if a new group of millions of Americans suddenly became potential customers.

"Our plan would enable all Americans, regardless of income, to have access to health coverage, without new bureaucracy or costly mandates," said Armey.

Lawrence M. O'Rourke write for McClatchy Newspapers. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS