Moral Issue of Our Time: Make Healthcare an American Right

By Richard Gephardt

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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In 1972, my 2-year-old son Matt was diagnosed with what doctors said was terminal cancer. My wife, Jane, and I were told he probably wouldn’t last six weeks. I remember those nights when I’d rock my son to sleep. Ask any father and he’ll tell you how much pride you feel when you’re able to soothe your children and watch them drift off to sleep.

Well, for me, in the midst of that time, I never wanted to let him go. In the end, we were among the most fortunate in more ways than one. My law firm had a health plan, and it was the only way we could afford new and experimental therapies. That insurance plan, the talented doctors and nurses, and the grace of God saved Matt’s life.

Millions of people in this country are not nearly as lucky as we were. How can we, the richest country on this earth, continue to do nothing while 41 million Americans live without health coverage?

As president, the first bill I will send to Congress will be a law requiring every employer to offer their employees access to quality coverage, with employer tax credits covering most of the cost. I will pay for it by repealing the tax cuts proposed by President Bush. My plan is the only plan that provides guaranteed health insurance coverage to all workers and the peace of mind that comes with that guarantee.

My plan achieves the twin goals of universal healthcare coverage and significant immediate economic stimulus to our troubled economy. The plan uses proven, existing private and public structures to extend health insurance coverage to all Americans. At the same time, the resulting economic stimulus will pump more than $316 billion into the economy during the first three years. The plan is paid for by repealing the Bush tax cut, replacing a failed economic plan with universal healthcare and demonstrable economic stimulus.

Employers who currently don’t offer health insurance would be required to offer a quality health plan, and they’d receive a refundable tax credit equaling 60% of the full cost of the premium — a tax credit they’d pass through completely to their employees in the form of health insurance. And for those employers who currently do offer health insurance, my plan replaces the existing tax deduction with a 60% refundable tax credit — a tax credit on the employer’s share of the premium. One hundred percent of the credit would pay for employee health insurance costs. “Refundable” means the employer will receive the credit, whether or not they’re making a profit. And the benefits to workers are many.

Under my plan, employers who already offer health insurance would see an immediate reduction in their overhead. The economic stimulus would result in billions of dollars in increased wages and benefits, more money in the pockets of the average family, and more jobs. Under my plan, a working family of four that currently has employer-based health insurance coverage would receive an annual increase in wage and benefits of $1,800. My plan is the right way to stimulate the economy — not knee-jerk tax cuts that do nothing but pay off George W. Bush’s wealthy campaign contributors while killing economic growth.

Adding millions of Americans to the ranks of the insured means more preventive care, far fewer trips to the emergency room and lower healthcare costs for everyone. It means we will eliminate the cost of uncompensated care that currently burdens our system and reduce health premium rates.

My plan would also allow individuals between the ages of 55 and 64 to buy into Medicare coverage at no cost to the federal government. We’ll subsidize 65% of the cost of COBRA health insurance for the unemployed. We’ll subsidize low-wage workers who are below or near the poverty line who can’t afford their share of the premium. And we’ll modify the SCHIP Program for uninsured low-income children, expanding it to include their parents, and expanding efforts to find those families that qualify.

My healthcare plan leaves no American on their own to bear the financial burden of catastrophic healthcare costs.

Rather than pass judgment on those who would seek our help, we should be seeking every possible means to preserve the dignity and honor of those who are less fortunate. That’s the measure of our worth as a people.

We’ll also be helping federal, state and local governments, as well as insurance companies, crawl out from under the $30 billion to $40 billion they spend every year on uncompensated care. These regressive costs force up state and local taxes, and force up our premiums. Removing these costs from the system benefits us all.

Far too many employers are failing to provide health insurance because the tax deduction doesn’t come close to covering the cost of the insurance premiums. As a result, millions of American families are left without health insurance.

Some will say my plan rewards companies that haven’t been offering health insurance. The fact is, those companies are receiving no economic benefit. It will be passed through directly to their employees — who make up a majority of the uninsured.

Some will say that this is a giveaway to corporate America and a tax increase on working families. Or they will argue that we’re spending billions of tax dollars to insure workers who already have health insurance. Those people are missing three important points.

First, my plan requires employers to spend 100% of the tax credit for employee health insurance coverage. Second, my plan is a greater value to working families than the Bush tax cuts. Not only will my plan provide working families with guaranteed health coverage, it will provide stimulus that will put more money in the pockets of every working American. Third, any universal health plan must not only address those who do not have health insurance; it must also address those who are moments away from losing health insurance coverage because an employer decides to reduce or eliminate coverage.

This is a bold, innovative idea that can work — an idea that can bridge a canyon of fear and illness and cover everyone in America with health insurance, and jump-start the economy at the same time. It’s morally right and economically sensible. Healthy workers are productive workers. And healthy families make for a stronger America.

When my son Matt was sick, I remember the nights we spent in the hospital waiting room talking to the parents of another patient — a child with severe cancer from a family that couldn’t afford health insurance. Those parents didn’t know what to do. All they could do was pray. As long as I live, I will never forget the terror in their eyes. In this country of plenty, it should never be this way.

Access to quality health coverage is the moral issue of our time. As president, I will work hard everyday to get it done. Let’s get this done.

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