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Is Health​ Care Still a Factor in Determining Presidential Election?

October 30, 2008 By:
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U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who recently stumped for Barack Obama in Pennsylvania, and U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican and physician who recently gave a slew of interviews touting John McCain's health plan, don't agree on much.

Yet, both said recently that, despite the financial crisis, health care remains a top priority for voters. They agreed that the system needs reform and that skyrocketing costs need to be brought under control.

Of course, they diverge widely on what needs to be done.

"The [state of the] economy has created even more concern about affordable health care," said Cardin.

But there are certainly differing opinions about whether health insurance is still a major factor in this election.

An Oct. 22 analysis by the Gallup Poll said that health care remains important for voters, but lags far behind the economy. According to the American Jewish Committee's Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, health care finished second -- and a very distant second -- to the economy.

In recent weeks, both McCain and Obama have explained their respective plans while on the stump. And it seems that Obama is betting far more than McCain that the issue still resonates with voters. Obama has spent $113 million on health-care-related television advertising -- eight times more than McCain, according to The Politico.

The Stock-Market Effect
But some argue that with the volatile stock market jeopardizing baby-boomers' retirement savings, more basic-pocketbook issues are on most voters' minds.

"People are much more concerned about their 401(k)s than they are about covering the uninsured," said William C. Daroff, vice president for public policy at United Jewish Communities, which, like other major Jewish groups, has made health-care reform a major part of its domestic-policy priorities.

Speaking of the plans, Obama hopes to mandate insurance for children, require employers to cover workers or pay a tax, and establish a new federal health plan specifically for the uninsured.

McCain seeks to change the tax code so that health benefits can be counted as taxable income. That would help finance a $5,000 per couple tax cut for individuals to purchase private health insurance in a less-regulated market.

The Lewin Group, a nonpartisan consulting firm, released a report that estimated that McCain's plan would reduce the number of uninsured individuals by 21 million, while Obama's would cut those ranks by 26.6 million. The group projected that McCain's plan would cost $2.5 trillion, while Obama's would cost $1.17 trillion.

Uwe Reinhardt, an economist at Princeton University who has not endorsed either candidate, said he prefers Obama's plan.

"If McCain sincerely believes he can solve this problem by offering $5,000, he's just wrong," said Reinhardt.

Burgess, the congressman, argued that Obama's plan represents a dangerous step toward socialized medicine. He also disputed the Lewin Group's figures.

"We will erode the employer-based system if we go into a nationalized plan. And that is what Sen. Obama is proposing," said Burgess. "The medicine that is practiced here is superior to anywhere else in the world. We clearly don't want to undo that formula."

But the $700 billion question still remains: Will the United States be able to pay for either of these plans in light of the federal bailout legislation?

The answer, according to John Sellis, senior vice president at the Lewin Group, is that it depends on whether Congress and the American people will support a program financed by deficit spending -- money borrowed from countries like China.

"It is not as though we had $700 billion sitting there in surplus, waiting for health-care reform," said Sellis. "The money was never there."

Robert Binstock, co-author of Aging Nation: The Economics and Politics of Growing Old in America, argued that the new president will be so preoccupied with an ongoing economic crisis that there will be little room for other major domestic initiatives.

"Health care will be on the back burner for some time to come," said Binstock, a political scientist.

But Reinhardt, the economist, gave a different answer.

"If Obama wins, I think something will happen in health reform," he said, adding that a Democratic Congress would probably block McCain's efforts. However, Reinhardt cautioned, Obama would not be able to effect all of his plans overnight. 

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