- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

The soon-to-be chairman of the Senate health panel said yesterday his ultimate goal is to have the government provide health care coverage for all Americans.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said he knows it will take awhile to gain support for the idea, so he will focus in the meantime on extending coverage to different groups, starting with covering more children under the existing Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) — something he thinks there is “a lot of sentiment for.”

But Mr. Kennedy, who yesterday laid out his agenda for the Health Education Labor and Workforce Committee, said universal health care is the goal.

“We want to continue the progress in terms of coverage,” he said. “We will have to take a longer period of time … developing the support for that.”

Mr. Kennedy argued that covering everyone is possible because his home state did it.

“We proved that people from all parts of the political spectrum can come together to provide health care for all,” he said. “So this, too, is one of our top goals for the coming year.”

Also, at the top of the “to-do” list provided by his staff is an initiative titled “Medicare for All,” which would expand federal Medicare coverage to Americans younger than 65 years old. The expansion would be done in phases — first to the 55- to 65-year-old age group and then to children younger than 20. The proposal is designed to be the starting point for discussions on universal coverage.

The rest of Mr. Kennedy’s agenda for the committee includes increasing the minimum wage, allowing Medicare to negotiate directly with drug companies for lower drug prices, expanding federal support for embryonic-stem-cell research, helping college students by increasing Pell Grants, capping college loan payments and cutting student-loan interest rates — goals that Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, has said she, too, will tackle soon after she takes the reins as House speaker in January.

Mr. Kennedy’s Medicare-for-all proposal is co-sponsored by Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, and would provide comprehensive coverage, including prescription drugs. According to a summary from Mr. Kennedy’s office, initial estimates put the proposal in the neighborhood of $600 billion per year in terms of cost, but it would generate $380 billion a year in savings, and costs would be covered by payroll taxes and general revenues.

Mr. Kennedy and others say it’s past time for such a change because skyrocketing health care costs burden society and business.

Democrats also will focus on improving CHIP, which covers 4 million low-income children and is administered by the states. Many states are facing steep funding shortfalls for the program, and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said recently “the first thing we must do is address these shortfalls so these children do not lose their existing coverage, and work to improve this vitally successful program as we reauthorize it next year.”

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