- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

There are about 40 million Americans with no health insurance, a number bound to increase after the latest round of layoffs. Now Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton can claim credit for first bringing the issue to a boiling point in 1993 with her politically disastrous attempt to implement a national health care plan. Conservatives were outraged at the attempt to socialize and that word is used very loosely here 14 percent of the nation's economy. The degree to which the plan is "socialized" medicine is debatable, as the largest for-profit health insurance companies would have been allowed to run the system under contract with Washington.

Voters were appalled at the prospect of being forced into a handful of federally designated HMOs. Republicans can thank her plan for helping them win the House and Senate in 1994. Key Democrats have nevertheless kept the porch light burning for the idea each session with proposed legislation to create similar systems. But Rep. Charlie Norwood, better known for his equally never-ending quest for a Patient's Bill of Rights, was next to offer serious legislation to address the problem, with his Access to Affordable Health Care Act in 1999. The bill offered an instantly refundable $2,000 per family tax credit for families without insurance to purchase a plan.

Mr. Norwood's bill was lampooned by the Left as being inadequate to cover the cost of fully comprehensive health insurance, or to guarantee affordable coverage to those with existing health problems. The legislation was accordingly criticized for potentially covering only a minority of the uninsured.

All three criticisms were entirely correct, yet totally irrelevant. The $2,000 allotment was not intended to fund a comprehensive health plan. It was to allow families who could afford minimal coverage to upgrade to comprehensive coverage. It would also have allowed families who could afford nothing to purchase minimal coverage such as a high-deductible major medical policy, or the reverse, a capped coverage plan that would only provide funds for everyday medical needs. Both of these type plans are available for $2,000. Families could choose which type of coverage was the most effective on limited incomes. There's a scary thought letting average Americans have a choice in health care.

The bill did not attempt to address the ability to purchase a health plan at a universal price regardless of pre-existing health conditions. That's a different subject, which needs an equally comprehensive approach.

Mr. Norwood's initial stab was buried by the Patient's Bill of Rights debate. But since then, numerous Democrats and Republicans have offered similar proposals. Former Sen. Bill Bradley used it in his 2000 presidential campaign and garnered the same criticisms as Mr. Norwood from Al Gore. Mr. Gore then joined George Bush in adopting similar rhetoric. President Bush now supports a $3,000-per-family tax credit. House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Rep. William Lipinski have offered just that: H.R. 1331, a bill that would grant families up to $3,000 per year to purchase individual health plans.

It's time to pass it, objections be damned. There's not a competing plan in existence that will cover more uninsured people without dramatically revamping our entire health-care system. That's a task for which Congress does not have the political stomach, nor do the people trust Congress to try.

But they do want universal access to affordable health care. Republicans prefer that to happen in the private market. Democrats prefer a government system. Independents don't give a rip where it comes from, as long as they don't get stuck with a heart attack and no health insurance.

Messrs. Armey and Lipinski keep it simple. Here's a plan that by anyone's analysis will provide coverage for millions of uninsured Americans, whether two or 20 million is anybody's guess. But it helps now, and will help even more as the final 20 states come on-line with high-risk pools to ensure that even the sickest Americans have access to coverage.

Everyone who purchases a policy under the Armey-Lipinski plan gets a bonus state-level protections of the Patient's Bill of Rights, including the right to sue your HMO in state court. It seems Congress in its wisdom eliminated state-level patient protections and court rights in 1974, creating all the HMO horror stories to begin with. Since the Armey-Lipinski plan only funds individual health plans, existing federal law that blocks patient's rights becomes moot.

Seems the people are a pretty good judge of things after all. Messrs. Armey and Lipinski are listening. Let's hope the rest of the House and Senate is, too.

John E. Stone is director of the U.S. Freedom Foundation, a Washingtonbased, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

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