Kennedy Offers Broad Universal Health Coverage Proposal

Renewing his call for universal health care, Sen. Edward Kennedy is offering a plan to provide coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

"It is unacceptable that any American is uninsured. Quality, affordable health insurance for every American is a matter of simple justice," Kennedy, D-Mass., said in speech prepared for Thursday night at the Harvard School of Public Health. "The time is long overdue for America to join the rest of the industrial world in recognizing this fundamental right."

Kennedy said he planned to introduce legislation when the new Congress convenes in January that would require all employers with more than five workers to provide health insurance for employees and their dependents. The coverage would have to be as good as that provided for federal employees. For those with low incomes, the government would offer subsidies to help pay premiums.

Kennedy's office estimated that the employer requirement would insure 80 percent of the nation's 41 million uninsured. For those who work for extremely small companies or are unemployed, Kennedy's proposal sets up a program similar to Medicare to offer coverage. Co-payment would be based on an individual's ability to pay.

The senator's office had no estimate on the cost of the proposal but said Kennedy was certain cost-savings could be found within the government.

Kate Sullivan, health policy director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said it is wrong to look to employers to solve the problem of the uninsured. "There's just no way someone with only five employees can harness the market the way the federal government does on behalf of 9 million," Sullivan said.

Kennedy is likely to face strong opposition in Congress. In January, Republicans will control the House, Senate and the White House, and the GOP has largely supported tax credits to help the uninsured pay for health coverage.

Last week, Democrat Al Gore, a possible presidential contender in 2004, said he favors "single-payer" national health coverage, a proposal that would require a massive change in the health insurance system. Gore aides said he would detail his proposal soon.

With single-payer coverage, money to pay for health care -- such as insurance premiums and tax dollars -- would be collected by a single agency, which would then pay for comprehensive coverage for all citizens.

Another potential Democratic candidate for president, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, wants to expand coverage under Medicare and Medicaid to cover people who do not have insurance.