Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) said Tuesday that America's small businesses need health care reform to heal the economic damage caused by sharply rising medical costs he contends have created a national crisis.
"We know that the foundation of our economy is the small business," Kerry said. "The health care crisis is bad for business."
The Massachusetts senator toured a family health center before meeting with health professionals, advocates and consumers during a second day of a campaign swing through key battleground states. Owners of small businesses told Kerry their health care costs have reached staggering levels.
"It's been a huge item," said Bruce Cohen, a plumbing business owner who said his costs have increased by nearly 75 percent in five years and forced him to put in place a $2,500 deductible. "It's constantly going up."
Kerry called for giving small business tax credits of up to 50 percent to help them provide coverage for low- to moderate-income employees. He also proposed having the federal government help small businesses cover the costs of catastrophic medical care, which he said would save a family as much as $1,000 each year.
"It's a free-for-all right now," Kerry said. "We have to give our small businesses and their employees the help they need."
In Washington, Senate Republicans criticized Kerry's health care plan while laying out recommendations for expanding health coverage. They embraced President Bush's proposal to help uninsured workers with tax credits and continued to push for limits on jury awards for medical malpractice.
"It's dramatically better than what Senator Kerry proposed," said Sen. Judd Gregg (search), R-N.H., who contended that Kerry's proposal "would lead to the nationalization of our system in a number of areas while leaving out large segments of the population."
John McCarthy, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, dismissed Kerry as "someone the people of Kentucky cannot trust" and charged that Kerry and other Democrats have flip-flopped on same-sex marriage legislation. "Kerry is good at one thing — taking multiple sides of multiple issues," McCarthy said.
Kerry's health care tour, which continues in Florida and Arkansas through Thursday, comes as national attention focuses on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers and the Bush administration's response. Asked by reporters what he would do about the abuses, Kerry said Tuesday: "The important thing is for the country now to get its path in Iraq correct. We need to come together and I'm hopeful that we will."
Kerry often devotes blocks of campaign time to a single issue. Last week, he discussed his plans for education only days after wrapping a bus tour of several battleground states to talk about his jobs program.
"There's a real problem when you want to be focused on one thing and the news wants to focus on something else," said Kathleen Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Although reports about Iraqi prisoner abuse dominate the national news media, Kerry pulls heavy coverage from local and regional outlets as his campaign makes its way through electorally important states. His appearances often lead local news broadcasts and appear on the front pages of local newspapers, generally reflecting his message.
Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic consultant, said Kerry's time-consuming focus on issues is laying the groundwork for voters, many of whom still know little about him, recent polls have shown.
"You lay down a lot of these issues as a foundation or a base and use that as a base for the campaign later on," Carrick said. "It may be good that Kerry is out there talking about bedrock, serious issues that affect real people while Bush is wrestling with this."