Does Universal Health Care Have a Chance?

ABC News' Dr. Tim Johnson weighs in on new plan.

ByABC News via via logo

April 26, 2007 — -- Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., have introduced a new plan for universal health care coverage that would give every American access to health care within five years.

Talking today to "Good Morning America," ABC News medical editor Dr. Tim Johnson called the plan "bold" and "politically brilliant."

The plan tackles the problem of the more than 46 million uninsured Americans by giving the uninsured a choice to use Medicare or the federal employees' health plan.

Everyone with a social security number would be covered for their entire lives under this plan. People could also choose to stick with their employer's health plan.

"It's politically brilliant because one of the options offered in the plan is to choose health coverage from the federal employees' health program," Johnson said.

"Every member of Congress has it and loves it -- even the president uses it. So, I think it's very tough politically for Congress to say, 'I have it and love it, but you can't have it, too.'"

The Kennedy-Dingell plan would be largely publicly financed by taxing payrolls.

"It turns out that's a much more effective way to collect money," Johnson said. "For example, most companies spend 13 percent of all their payroll costs buying their employees health insurance. Under this system, the companies would pay a new 7 percent payroll tax. Health care costs for employers should be cut nearly in half, and the government will still have enough money to finance the new plan because of efficiencies and savings."

Companies that don't provide health insurance would have to start paying into the pool with the 7 percent payroll tax. Johnson said the costs will be cheaper overall because the risks will be spread out over the entire population.

Critics of the plan call it socialized medicine run by the government.

But the health care system will remain private, Johnson said. Just as under the current Medicare program, doctors, hospitals and other providers will continue to operate as independent, private entities. The program will largely be administered by private carriers and intermediaries.

"This is an extension of what we already have: Medicare, and the federal employees' health program isn't government medicine," Johnson said. "You choose your own private doctors and hospitals, the financing is just provided for by the government."

A huge stumbling block for the the Kennedy-Dingell plan is the powerful health care industry's opposition to it.

The health care industry spent more than $412 million lobbying Congress last year, according to Congressional Quarterly. And a watchdog group, the Center for Public Integrity, found that the health care industry has employed 48 former members of Congress and a dozen former senators as lobbyists in recent years.

Johnson said public support for a new health care system could help push the plan through if the political winds shift.

"People are getting worried about their health coverage," Johnson said. "It does have a chance. Probably not this year, but if a Democratic president is elected, and Congress stays Democratic, then it has a real chance of getting passed."

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