Sen. John F. Kerry delivered a stinging indictment of the Bush administration's health care policies yesterday, saying the president is embracing the wrong values by leaving millions of Americans without health insurance.
In his first major Washington speech since losing the Nov. 2 election, Kerry (D-Mass.) mocked some of President Bush's signature programs and called on the government to provide medical coverage to every American child. Although the senator told well-wishers it was "way too early" to discuss another possible presidential bid, his heavily promoted speech at the Mayflower Hotel had the look and feel of a campaign appearance.
Sen. John F. Kerry described his "Kids First" plan at a Families USA meeting.
(Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
"In the United States of America, we shouldn't have to rely on a faith-based initiative for health care," Kerry said in his luncheon address to Families USA, a consumer advocacy group. "Some people like to talk about mandates, but I say to you that I think the mandate is children."
As if there were any doubt that Kerry was engaging Bush head-on, he added: "Today the president . . . is addressing this issue of health care in Ohio. But his effort, I regret to say to you, is the same window dressing, the same avoidance of reality that we've seen throughout the last four years."
Kerry has kept a fairly low profile since conceding the election, but he had signaled earlier that health care -- especially for children -- would be a priority issue when he began to reemerge. The subject has long been a specialty of his mentor and backer, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
It is also an issue often associated with another possible 2008 presidential contender, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who addressed the Families USA gathering a few hours ahead of Kerry. Clinton delivered her own criticisms of the Bush administration, saying it is proposing changes to Medicaid "that I believe would be devastating for America's low-income families, for Americans with disabilities and for our seniors."
She urged Congress to resist White House proposals to convert some of Medicaid's federal funding into block grants, which she called "artificial caps" on spending. "Block grants are a bad idea from nearly every angle," Clinton said, "particularly what they will do to the health care safety net that we have constructed over the last 40 years."
Kerry interspersed his criticisms of Bush with a few pokes at himself. Speaking from a spot closer to the White House than the Capitol, he said, "I must say I did have to travel a few more blocks than I had hoped to get here." Before quoting a favorite Bible passage, he told the audience: "I said this a few times in the campaign -- maybe I should have said it more."
But most of his 26-minute speech was serious, including his eight references to values, a much-debated subject of the 2004 elections. "In a city where politicians like to use the word 'values,' insuring kids is really a test of who just talks about family values and who actually values families," Kerry said.
He said his proposed legislation, dubbed "Kids First," would cover each of the nation's 11 million uninsured children. He said the cost -- which aides later estimated at about $2 billion a year -- would be covered by canceling "a small portion" of the Bush administration's tax cuts enjoyed by individuals making more than $300,000 annually.
Providing insurance to all children eventually would pay for itself, Kerry said, in part by reducing "avoidable hospitalizations by 22 percent" and "replacing expensive critical care with inexpensive preventative care."
Jabbing at Bush's top education initiative, Kerry said children "who are enrolled in public health insurance programs achieve a 68 percent improvement in the measurements of their school performance. . . . If no child is left behind in the doctor's waiting rooms, my friends, we have a much better chance of leaving no child behind in the schools of America."
"Unfortunately," he said, "the White House plans for health care will actually make health care delivery in America worse. . . . The White House plan is this: Let's not import less expensive drugs. Let's not negotiate better drug prices here in America. Let's ignore the 45 million Americans who have no health insurance at all. Let's forget about patients' rights."
Bush, he said, ignores the nation's health needs "even as he seeks to hype a phony crisis in Social Security. You know what that sounds like to me? A cradle-to-grave irresponsibility plan."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Kerry's speech.