- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Small-business leaders told Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry yesterday that soaring health costs are forcing them to take extraordinary steps to offer any coverage to their workers.

Mr. Kerry said his health care plan would offer serious assistance to small businesses, which he called the engine of the nation’s economy.

“It’s not a plan drawn up on the back of an envelope for a campaign,” Mr. Kerry told small-business owners during his latest effort to focus the campaign’s debate on health care.

The owners told Mr. Kerry that they were most worried about health care costs that are forcing them to lay off workers, cut benefits and search for coverage plans.

Bruce Cohen, who owns a plumbing company, said his costs have soared 75 percent in the past five years and have forced him to put in place a $2,500 deductible.

“It’s a huge item,” Mr. Cohen said. “It is constantly going up.”

Mr. Kerry held the round-table discussion at Louisville Stoneware, a company founded in 1815. Owner Anthony Urbaites said it has been forced to cut 18 workers and spend $200,000 a year on health care.

“We can’t just stand back and pretend that they aren’t struggling,” Mr. Kerry said. “We have to help them cover these costs, stay competitive so they can create jobs and help our economy grow.”

Mr. Kerry called for giving small businesses tax credits of up to 50 percent to help them provide coverage for low- to moderate-income employees. He also proposed having the federal government help small businesses cover the costs of catastrophic medical care, which he said would save a family as much as $1,000 each year.

Dr. Kenneth Zegart, a physician who backs Mr. Kerry but wants more protection from lawsuits by patients, pressed the Massachusetts senator on the question of malpractice reform, which Republicans favor.

“The Democrats in this state are disconnected on this issue,” Dr. Zegart said. “Democrats are afraid of a dialogue. I want to have a dialogue.”

Mr. Kerry said he backs a screening system for frivolous lawsuits and blamed insurance companies for “not spreading the risk.”

In Washington, Senate Republicans criticized Mr. Kerry’s health care plan while laying out recommendations for expanding health coverage. They embraced President Bush’s proposal to help uninsured workers with tax credits and continued to push for limits on jury awards for medical malpractice.

“It’s dramatically better than what Senator Kerry proposed,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, who contended that Mr. Kerry’s proposal “would lead to the nationalization of our system in a number of areas while leaving out large segments of the population.”

John McCarthy, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, dismissed Mr. Kerry as “someone the people of Kentucky cannot trust.”

Mr. McCarthy also said Mr. Kerry and other Democrats have flip-flopped on same-sex “marriage” legislation. “Kerry is good at one thing — taking multiple sides of multiple issues,” he said.

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