A day after trying to rally the nation behind his Iraq policy, President Bush pivoted back to his domestic agenda Tuesday, traveling to this Democratic stronghold to highlight the role of community health centers in caring for the uninsured.
In a campaign-style “conversation” at Youngstown State University, Bush touted neighborhood clinics, a centerpiece of his healthcare agenda, as a primary way to expand access to medical services.
The president hailed the thousands of community health centers around the U.S. as “a safety net” that provided care to those without insurance. “This is access to healthcare in a practical way,” he said.
With the number of Americans lacking insurance now at more than 43 million and rising, the twin issues of healthcare access and soaring costs have continued to hover as top-tier social concerns in the decade since President Clinton and now-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) attempted, but failed, to restructure the nation’s healthcare system.
Bush’s appearance here signaled that he was not about to cede the issue to Democrats during the presidential campaign.
In a background paper, the White House noted that Bush’s 2005 budget proposal contained a $1.8-billion request for community centers, an increase of $218 million over 2004, and a 57% increase since Bush took office.
The National Assn. of Community Health Centers, a nonprofit organization that represents the clinic network, welcomed Bush’s support for the centers but said still more funding was needed.
In 2002 and 2003, about 1,250 clinics applied for federal funds, but only 411 applications were approved, the group said. The association reported earlier this year that 36 million Americans lacked access to basic medical care. There are about 3,500 community health centers across the country, serving up to 13 million people, most of whom live in low-income urban neighborhoods or underserved rural areas. About 40% of those people have no health insurance, and many more are underinsured and cannot afford to meet the cost of their high deductibles and co-payments.
Most of the clinics, which provide primary medical care and basic dental services, receive little or no federal funding.
Since his first year in the White House, Bush has made expansion of the health-center safety net the centerpiece of his healthcare policy. His five-year initiative calls for 645 new health centers and 555 expanded clinics by 2006.
Administration officials said Bush’s expansion, if fully funded by Congress, would extend healthcare availability to an additional 6 million Americans.
Neighborhood clinics are “a common-sense approach to making sure the healthcare system works ... without centralizing the decision-making process in Washington, D.C.,” Bush said.
Another provision of Bush’s healthcare platform would allow small businesses to band together to buy insurance for their employees as a group, thereby qualifying for lower premiums.
Bush also has called for imposing limits on awards to victims of medical malpractice, saying that such caps would deter “junk and frivolous lawsuits” which he said drive up medical costs.
Like other “conversations” that the Bush White House has coordinated around the country, whether the topic was healthcare or the economy, Tuesday’s event included half a dozen participants whose experiences highlighted points that the president wanted to underscore.
Dr. Compton Girdharry, an obstetrician-gynecologist, said he had been forced out of private practice in Alliance, Ohio, by high malpractice insurance premiums. His experience, Bush said, illustrated that “the system is totally out of whack.”
Youngstown and surrounding Mahoning County voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2002 by a near 2-to-1 ratio, even as the state went for Bush by four percentage points.
Chen reported from Youngstown, Kemper from Washington.