Democratic Candidates Tackle Health Care

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The Democratic presidential contenders shared the stage last night in Las Vegas. The topic was health care, and the service workers union was the sponsor.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Sometimes, what happens in Vegas ends up on WEEKEND EDITION. Yesterday, seven candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination took on the thorny topic of health care at a forum on the University of Nevada campus there. It was an effort by the Service Employees International Union to push health care to the top of the nation's agenda and an effort by the candidates to seek union support in one of the early caucus states.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: There was one health care topic uppermost in the minds of both the candidates and the audience yesterday.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Let me say first a personal thank you to all of you, and to people who have been so kind and so generous over the last few days including, by the way, my fellow candidates who will be here today. I'm very proud to have my wife Elizabeth here with me today.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, the first to speak, immediately acknowledged the issue of his wife Elizabeth's cancer recurrence. And with Elizabeth Edwards looking on from the front row, he seamlessly wove their own experience into his argument for a total overhaul of America's health care system.

Mr. EDWARDS: When you look at all the millions of women who have had to struggle with the same sort of struggles that Elizabeth has had without what we have, without great health care coverage, without knowing they're going to be able to get all the medicine and medications that they need - so before we start giving too much credit to us, let's do what we need to do to for all, all of us.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: Edwards had the most detailed plan of any of the candidates: it would require employers to provide insurance or pay into a fund that would help people buy their own, and every individual would have to have some kind of health coverage. To give them a choice, Edwards would set up health care markets, offering a range of private plans or the option of a government program he called Medicare Plus.

Mr. EDWARDS: The idea is to determine whether Americans actually want a private insurer or whether they'd rather have a kind of single-payer plan. And we'll find out over time which way people go.

JAFFE: Most of the candidates' plans were similar on the basics. Like Edwards, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Senators Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd all advocated shared responsibility among employers and individuals: cost containment, consumer choice and preventive care.

Only Congressmafn Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel proposed government-run, single-payer plans. And it's worth noting that one candidate came without a plan to present at all. Senator Barack Obama asked for patience.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Our campaign now is, I think, a little over eight weeks old, and so we will be putting a very detailed plan on our Web site. If we have another forum in a couple of months, if it's still not there, then I'll be in trouble.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: But having a plan, said Senator Clinton, wasn't really the issue.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): We need a movement. We need people to make this the number 1 voting issue in the '08 election, to send a message to the Congress and the special interests. We're serious, and we're going to get it done this time.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: The candidates were all hopeful that if elected, they would succeed where the Bill Clinton administration failed in the 1990s. The main reason: things are different now. Health care costs are stratospherically higher. And yes, there are 47 million people in this country with no health insurance, most of whom have jobs. But Andy Stern, the forum's co-host and head of the Service Employees International Union, said the uninsured aren't the only urgent problem now.

Mr. ANDREW STERN (President, Service Employees International Union): Health care in America is no longer just a moral issue; it's an economic issue as well. America cannot be the only industrialized nation on earth that asks its employers to put the price of health care on the cost of its products.

JAFFE: Another global issue that loomed over the discussion was the war in Iraq. For New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, it was a reminder of another aspect of America's health care system that needs to be fixed.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): I would have a hero's health card, a hero's health card that would enable our veterans to get coverage anywhere they want. They should not have to drive 200 miles to the nearest VA hospital.

JAFFE: And the billions being spent in Iraq looked to many of the candidates like the pot of gold that could solve many of the nation's health care problems.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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