NEW YORK – The only doctor among the Democratic presidential candidates, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), offered a detailed version Tuesday of his near-universal health care plan that covers all Americans up to age 25 and helps uninsured adults get some protections.
Dean, who put off unveiling his universal health care plan for months because of the war in Iraq, wants to make this his signature issue.
"To me health care is not just a policy issue, it's a moral imperative," he said.
However, because of his delays, primary rival and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search), beat him to the punch last month offering his own measure. The Gephardt plan would require all employers to insure workers, reimbursing them 60 percent for the cost of providing health care and paying for it with a repeal of $200 billion annually from tax cuts enacted in 2001.
Still Dean, who is trying to find other relevant issues now that his opposition to the war is about moot, thinks his $88 billion package is not only the best, but the most likely to succeed.
"This is the best health care proposal I've seen in terms of its ability to pass, its ability to cover people and its price tag," Dean said.
Dean says his plan will build on existing programs. It will:
-- expand Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Programs (search) to include everyone up to 25 years of age, and allow adults at 185 percent of the poverty level to get access to Medicaid;
-- make available to individuals and small businesses with less than 50 employees the federal health care plans now offered to government employees;
-- require employers to provide extended coverage under Cobra, the safety net offered to workers who lose their jobs; and
-- offer tax breaks to businesses that join a government-like program and deny tax breaks to corporations that do not insure employees.
To pay for the program, Dean would raise some of the taxes that Bush cut in 2001. But he hasn't yet said which tax cuts or what percentage of them.
"I can't say off the top of my head, I don't know the answer," he said.
Dean did say he wouldn't aim repeals at the child tax credits, relief for married couples and inheritance tax relief for estates worth less than $5 million. His policy director Jeremy Ben-Ami said any repeal would be a "symbolic yet painful step that would send a very clear message" to companies that don't cover their workers.
Dean added that costs are a major concern and drug prices have been driven up by unfair government practices.
"There are other important issues, the need for cost controls, change in the law so that we can close the patent loopholes used by drug companies to unfairly extend their patents, to get rid of the anti-competitive practices that the federal government put in over the years, and to allow international reimportation of drugs," he said.
Dean did have answers ready when it came to Gephardt's plan, distributing a detailed comparison of the two programs.
Dean contends that his plan will cover the same amount of people at a fraction of the cost of Gephardt's plan.
"My plan is 30 to 40 percent less expensive," Dean said. "You won't find significant mandates in my plan because that's going to lead to another decade with 41 million Americans going without health insurance."
Gephardt counters that Dean's plan is not universal and will simply "nibble around the edges" of the country's health care problem. "To effectively resolve this crisis we must treat the whole problem and not the symptoms," he said in a statement.
Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith added that Dean's tax credit for businesses that must pay higher premiums would undermine employer-provided health care.
"This whole idea that individuals will have these tax credits available to them will encourage businesses to stop covering their employees," Smith said. "They can do it without worrying that their employees won't be insured."
To win over voters, the Democratic hopeful is planning on selling the program when he visits Iowa's 99 counties and several spots in New Hampshire, home to the first caucus and primary respectively.
Dean trails behind Gephardt in Iowa, but he is running equal to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in New Hampshire, which borders both of their home states. Kerry plans to unveil his health care plan Thursday.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.