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Kerry Says Bush Ignoring Health Crisis

Times Staff Writer

Sen. John F. Kerry accused President Bush on Monday of ignoring a healthcare crisis in America, and said his own plan to cut insurance costs and make medical care available to more citizens would cure a “badly broken” system.

“For four years, this administration hasn’t even tried to really make a dent in the rising cost of healthcare, let alone even address the issue of those who can’t afford [insurance] and don’t have insurance at all,” Kerry said at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

As Bush campaigns for reelection, Kerry said, “you almost never hear ... ‘healthcare’ come out of the president’s mouth, and you certainly don’t hear any plan at all to lower the cost of healthcare.”

Speaking with a phalanx of nurses behind him, the Massachusetts senator kicked off a campaign swing in which he will focus this week on the high costs of medical care while visiting Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas.

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The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee did not unveil any new proposals Monday, but spotlighted his plan to reduce healthcare costs.

Kerry’s plan, which would cost an estimated $653 billion over 10 years, is one of several he has offered that would be paid for by rolling back the Bush administration tax cuts for American families earning more than $200,000 annually.

Kerry proposes that the government create an insurance pool for high-risk patients, thereby saving money for the entire healthcare system. The plan also includes:

* Catastrophic care: If an employer provided health insurance coverage to all employees, including provisions for chronic-disease management, the government would pay for all medical costs for a worker whose care cost more than $50,000 annually. Kerry said it would save a family $1,000 a year in premiums.

* Prescription drugs: The secretary of Health and Human Services would be required to negotiate for better prices for patients covered by Medicare. Kerry also would call for reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada, allowing Americans to get discounts on drugs.

* Malpractice reform: Patients would be prohibited from filing malpractice lawsuits unless a qualified specialist determined that a reasonable claim exists.

The Bush campaign disputed the claim that Bush had done nothing to tamp down healthcare costs and cited recent passage of a new prescription drug benefit for seniors in the Medicare program. Campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry’s plan would shift the cost of healthcare to taxpayers and “increase red tape.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson also countered that the president had “proposed an aggressive set of reforms to help make healthcare more affordable.”

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To underscore its contention that healthcare costs are out of control, the Kerry campaign conducted a state-by-state analysis, which, it said, showed that the average nationwide increase in healthcare premiums for a family of four since 2000 is $2,777, bringing the annual cost to $9,549.

New Jersey topped the list as the state with the highest increase in premiums, $3,113, while Idaho was identified as having one of the lowest increases, at $2,107, the report said. On average, New Jersey families pay $10,705 in premiums, and Idaho families pay $7,247 a year, the campaign said.

California, the campaign said, saw family premiums rise $2,553 -- to $8,780 annually -- since 2000.

The campaign based its report on data from the U.S. Census, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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According to the campaign report, there are an estimated 43.6 million uninsured Americans, including 9.3 million children. Kerry said his healthcare plan would provide insurance for an estimated 26.7 million uncovered Americans.

“Waiting for a doctor’s bill is causing almost as much anxiety as waiting for the diagnosis itself,” Kerry told several hundred students and invited guests at Edinboro University in western Pennsylvania. “And cutting through endless red tape and paperwork is wasting literally billions of dollars that could be put to care itself.”

Standing beside Albert Barker -- a 61-year-old who lost his job, lost his health insurance and had three heart attacks -- Kerry said Bush had exacerbated the nation’s healthcare crisis by standing by “while insurance companies have taken in record profits and families have faced record-high premiums.”

Moreover, Kerry said, high healthcare costs are keeping manufacturers from being economically competitive and small businesses from hiring workers and making investments.

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Bush has pushed to expand insurance coverage through tax credits to families. He also has proposed limits on medical malpractice lawsuits to control rising healthcare costs.

Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., called healthcare particularly important to voters this year. Although Bush is vulnerable on the issue, he said, Kerry has yet to tap it effectively.

“There are so many people over the past three years who have had trouble with health insurance,” Berry said. “They’ve lost jobs and insurance with it. There’s a constituency out there that’s extremely nervous about healthcare. It’s out there for Kerry’s picking. So far he hasn’t been effective.”

Kerry aides are hoping that this week’s focus on the candidate’s proposals will turn that around.

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“This is a really important difference in their economic approaches,” said Sarah Bianchi, Kerry’s policy director. “This is about the uninsured, but it’s also an economic approach that allows families to be less squeezed, manufacturers to be more competitive and small business to expand.”

The House is expected this week to debate two measures that have stalled in the past: one to limit how much money malpractice victims can win in the courts, and another to allow small businesses to form insurance buying pools. House members also will consider a new proposal to allow taxpayers to roll over as much as $500 from medical flexible spending accounts.

Senate Republicans will unveil their own healthcare proposals today.

In addition to Kerry’s speech in Edinboro, the the campaign e-mailed a 50-second Internet message about healthcare to 250,000 supporters.

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Times staff writer Vicki Kemper in Washington contributed to this report.


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