DMI Blog

Corinne Ramey

Where Do the Candidates Stand on the Health Care? Dennis Kucinich

My favorite moment of the Democratic debate last week Tuesday was when Democratic candidate Dennis Kucinich claimed that he'd seen a UFO. Moderator Tim Russert asked Kucinich about his UFO experience, saying "that you found the encounter extremely moving, that it was a triangular craft silent and hovering, that you felt a connection to your heart and heard direction in your mind."

"I did," replied Kucinich.

Maybe Kucinich's extraterrestrial politics are a little up in the clouds (although, as the Huffington Post notes, Kucinich isn't even the top choice for the UFO lobby). But when it comes to health care policies, Kucinich appears to have his feet planted firmly on this planet. His proposal for a universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care system is a far stretch from the other presidential candidates -- especially Rudy Giuliani, who I wrote about last week -- but has the potential to address many of the health care problems currently facing America. With 46 million Americans uninsured (and, as Kucinich says, millions more underinsured), it's time for a new health care plan for America.

Let's start with some definitions. Kucinich is calling for universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care, but what exactly does that mean?

By "universal," Kucinich is referring to a government mandated health care program that would provide health insurance for all citizens and possibly for permanent residents. The US is currently the only industrialized nation that doesn't provide universal health care.

A "single-payer" plan is one is which a public agency organizes payment for health providers such as doctors and hospitals. Under Kucinich's plan, health care delivery would still remain mostly private based. The Canadian health care system and U.S. Medicare system are both examples of single-payer health care plans.

Finally, a not-for-profit health care system is one in which there is no market based competition between health care providers. A not-for-profit system would eliminate some of the excessive spending of the current health care industry. The U.S. would save an estimated $161,000,000,000 each year on paperwork if it adopted single-payer, not for profit health care. Current profits from health care are huge -- HMOs made $11.4 billion in profits in 2004 and the top ten pharmaceutical companies made $277.6 billion in revenues. Advocates of not-for-profit health care claim that non-profit providers are more driven by the health needs of the community instead of the pocketbooks of investors and stockholders.

Kucinich is no stranger to advocating for universal health care plans. In 2005, he was a co-sponsor of HR 676, a bill nicknamed "Medicare for All." At the Presidential Forum on Health Care, Kucinich said of the bill,

"A not-for-profit health care system is not only possible, but HR 676, a bill that I introduced, and a number of Congressmen, the Conyers-Kucinich bill, actually establishes Medicare for all, a single-payer system and it's a not-for-profit system. It's time we ended this thought that health care is a privilege. It is a basic right, and it's time to end this control that insurance companies have not only over health care but over our political system."

Sounds great so far, right? Access to affordable health care for all Americans, without the bureaucracy and skyrocketing costs associated with the insurance industry? Let's take a look at two of the problems with universal care -- political feasibility and basic affordability -- and see if the chance of implementing a health care plan like Kucinich's is any more likely than seeing a UFO (according to Kucinich, 14% of Americans have seen one).

How politically feasible is universal care? Could a plan that's been called "socialized medicine" really make it through the House and Senate? One one hand, polls have shown that Americans do support universal health care. In a CNN poll from the spring of 2007, 64% of respondents said that the government should provide "a national insurance program for all Americans, even if this would require higher taxes." About 73% of respondents would approve of higher taxes for a plan that would insure all children under 18. In a 2005 poll, 72% of respondents said that the government "should guarantee health coverage for all Americans."

That means that more than five times the amount of Americans who have seen a UFO would like government guaranteed health care. Does a plan like Kucinich's have a chance?

Unfortunately, recent history has shown that poll numbers on health care don't line up with the legislation passing in D.C. The Children's State Health Insurance Plan, or SCHIP, is a prime example. Despite overwhelming bipartisan support, the legislation failed to garner enough votes to override Bush's presidential veto, and, after renegotiations , is awaiting another likely veto. The bill isn't even anything radical -- it only covers low income children and is entirely covered by an increase in tobacco taxes. If 73% of Americans would support a health plan for ALL children (not just lower and lower-middle class children) EVEN if there was a tax increase, shouldn't a plan like SCHIP be a no-brainer? Given the difficulties that SCHIP faced, it may be difficult for Kucinich to pass his dream health care legislation.

Even if it were politically feasible to pass a plan like Kucinich's, how can we afford it? Kucinich claims that such a plan would pay for itself by redistributing the financing of the current for-profit system. In July of 2006 Kucinich said,

"At least 30% of the $3.2 trillion spent annually for health care in the United States goes to the for-profit system, while 50 million Americans, many of them working, are without health insurance. About $660 billion goes for corporate profits, executive salaries, stock options, advertising, marketing, and the cost of paperwork. If we took all that money and we put it into a public health system, a national health care plan, we would have enough money to cover everything for everyone."

Kucinich's universal care legislation, HR 676, sets out some more specific ways to pay for the plan. These include increasing personal income taxes on the top 5% of income earners, instituting a "modest and progressive excise tax" on self-employment and payment income, and instituting a small tax on stock and bond transactions.

But from a more international perspective, why should American's health care cost so much more than other industrialized nations with universal care? America spends about 15.3% of its GDP on health care, over 6 percentage points higher than the average spending for OECD countries. Other high spenders include Switzerland, France and Germany, which all spend about 11% of their GDP of health care.

Unfortunately, all that extra spending isn't resulting in any tangible benefits. The United States has fewer physicians, nurses and hospital beds per capita than other OECD countries. Life expectancy is almost a full year less than the average for other OECD countries and infant mortality rates have fallen less than other countries. Why are we spending more than the rest of the world and not seeing the results?

I know that from a realistic standpoint the chance of Kucinich winning the presidency is even less than the chance that I'll see a UFO. But even so, I think there's a lot that we can learn from Kucinich and his health care plan. Kucinich reminds us that the current system, riddled with bureaucracy, insurance kickbacks, and pharmaceutical profits -- can change. He also gives us a way to reframe the health care debate by linking the discussion about universal care to the current Medicare program.

Kucinich talks about health care as something that should be available to all Americans, regardless of age or income level. Good health care is a public good -- just like public schools -- and high quality preventative care should be available to everybody, both for the health of individuals and for the good of the nation. Kucinich talks about his health care program as "Medicare for All." Medicare, the single-payer health care plan for the elderly, has overwhelming popular support. By referring to his program as a version of a popular program that already exists, Kucinich reminds us that he isn't advocating government-provided health care, but only government insurance, which would allow for all citizens to be covered. Even if Kucinich doesn't become president, his way of framing universal health care deserves serious consideration.

Corinne Ramey: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:45 AM, Nov 10, 2007 in Health Care | The Candidates on Health Care
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