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Health care a key for Democratic candidates

Kirk Caraway
Nevada Appeal Internet Editor

I got a call a couple of weeks ago asking if I wanted to go for a ride with Gov. Bill Richardson.

I was a bit puzzled at first. I had just written a column about how I didn’t think he could win the nomination for president, but was a sure-fire bet for VP.

Could the governor be mad about that? Was this his chance to set me straight?

Whatever. I took them up on the offer. Besides, since that column, a friend pointed out to me that at the same point in time before the last presidential election, John Kerry was in fourth place in the polls, exactly where Richardson is now. Don’t count anyone out until the votes are cast.

The war in Iraq is still center stage for all the candidates, but I think that when it comes to the primaries, health care reform will determine the fate of the Democratic candidates, and that’s what I wanted to discuss with Richardson.

I had already talked with Barack Obama about health care earlier this year. Well, sort of. Actually, he shook my hand at a public event while my arm was in a sling from shoulder surgery. He asked me about what I did to my arm, what kind of surgery I had, if I was getting physical therapy. I didn’t find out much about his health care plan, though.

The enormous problems with our current health care system have finally reached a level that can no longer be ignored. Critics have been shouting at the wind for decades that the system is broken and headed for failure. Those complaints are now being heard on the campaign trail.

I interviewed Richardson while riding in an SUV on the way to the airport in Reno.

Why, governor, do you think your health care plan is better than the others?

“My plan is no new bureaucracy, and no new taxes, and a very strong emphasis on prevention,” Richardson said, a sound bite that will play well among voters.

Richardson described his plan as one where costs were shared between individuals, businesses, state and federal government. “It’s a universal plan whose main principle is no matter who you are in this country, a ditch digger or a CEO, everybody has the same access to quality health care.”

To keep costs down, Richardson’s plan calls for caps on insurance rates, allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and lowering the age to qualify for Medicare to 55. He also said Americans should be allowed to participate in the congressional health care plan, the “Cadillac of all plans” that covers members of Congress.

The part of the plan that got the most applause at the campaign event earlier in the day was that he wants to give veterans special cards that would allow them to get medical care anywhere in the country, not just at VA hospitals.

What about making Medicare available to all ages, as some have suggested?

“I’m not there yet,” he relied. “I’m leery of the government running health care. But if I can be shown that plan reduces bureaucracy and cost, I’m willing to consider it. Right now, I believe my plan is the most effective, and it reforms existing programs in areas where they need to be.”

Richardson is a practical politician. His health care plan isn’t really that bold, but it’s workable.

“I think I could get it through the Democratic congress, and I believe it could be implemented within two to three years,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but it would lead towards universal health care, and I don’t believe we should tax our people any more. They can’t afford that.”

And that was the end of our health care discussion, as we pulled into the airport. I wasn’t expecting to get an in-depth presentation on his plan, complete with facts and figures. And maybe that’s the problem with campaigning on this issue. All the important details will be left out. This is a huge and complicated problem that defies description by sound bites on the campaign trail.

Whoever moves into the White House in 2009 will have to tackle health care. Until then, all of this talk is just that. American voters are going to have to keep the pressure on, to keep asking the questions, and to let our elected leaders know that this is a wound that will not heal itself. Health care reform can’t just be a campaign slogan.

• Kirk Caraway is editor of http://nevadapolitics.com and also writes a blog on national issues at http://kirkcaraway.com.