PITTSBURGH – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) on Monday accused President Bush of ignoring a steady rise in health care costs as he began a weeklong trek to battleground states where he contends families are struggling to pay their medical bills.
Families are facing record premiums while insurance companies are earning record profits, Kerry said. Total family premiums have risen more than $2,700 in four years, a rate he said was four times faster than that for workers' earnings.
The average American family pays nearly $10,000 a year for a policy, the Kerry campaign stated, more than those in any other country. U.S. employers have responded by slowing hiring and shifting work to part-time and temporary employees, according to the campaign.
"It's not acceptable to do nothing while families lose their savings, workers lose their jobs, and businesses close their doors because of the high cost of health care," Kerry said in remarks prepared for delivery at Pennsylvania's Edinboro University (search). "We need a president who knows our health care crisis isn't acceptable and who has a plan to fix it."
On the swing, the campaign is targeting key battleground states, beginning in Erie, Pa., then heading to Kentucky and Florida before wrapping up in Little Rock, Ark. At each stop, Kerry will be joined by health care workers and by those who have struggled with paying for care.
His argument is that he has heard those concerns, while Bush has turned a deaf ear.
"I've seen the faces of America's health care crisis," said Kerry. "I've heard their stories."
The Massachusetts senator has offered a health care reform plan that calls for repealing the tax cut that Bush pushed through Congress applying to the wealthiest Americans, and using the money that saves to bolster health care. He would have the federal government assume the costs of the most catastrophic cases, a step he says would relieve health insurance costs for both businesses and workers.
In his swing, Kerry is not spelling out new policy, but releasing the study he said shows that the nation's health care crisis has grown to a proportion where it's not simply a social issue, but has become a drag on the economy. Soaring health care costs have forced businesses to cut back on workers and trim other investments, dampening the economy.
Kerry is launching his new effort in a carefully coordinated national push. Democratic National Committee (search) officials plan events with key surrogates around the country. For instance, former rival Dick Gephardt (search) was set to make the case with reporters in a conference call Monday, just before Kerry launches his push.
The Democrat also was releasing a new Web video on Monday to supporters, showing Bush in January 2000, saying: "I'll have the goal, the idea of making sure people have got affordable health care and insurance policies to make sure they're able to pay for them." The video then claims, "Under Bush, family premiums have increased $2,777" and "Bush has no plan to lower rates."
Aides to the Bush campaign dismissed the effort, saying the president's plan to lower health care costs will allow more people to have health insurance. Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt also said Kerry's opposition to medical liability reform has worked against lower costs.
Kerry aides countered that their studies showed the senator's plan would extend coverage to an additional 27 million people, while Bush would cover just 2.5 million more.
With an eye on the electoral map, Kerry has broken his study down state by state. He says health insurance costs in Pennsylvania — its 21 electoral votes critical to his election — have grown $2,756 over four years, with a family policy now averaging $9,477. In Ohio, with 20 electoral votes, costs have grown $2,704 and policies now cost $9,300. The numbers for Michigan, with 17 electoral votes, show a $2,795 increase to a family cost of $9,612.
Those family costs, the campaign said, include both the employer and employee share of paying for a policy. Aides said Kerry wanted to cast the issue in both social and economic terms, arguing the new numbers show health care costs have reached a crisis level for families and the overall economy.
"Today, regular checkups are emptying family pocketbooks," Kerry said. "Waiting for a doctor's bill is causing as much anxiety as waiting for a diagnosis."