Meanwhile, Gephardt, speaking in Iowa yesterday, called for legislation requiring businesses to offer health insurance "just as they must now provide a minimum wage."

Gephardt said forcing businesses to offer health insurance would cover about half of the 37 million people in the nation who currently are not insured. For the other half, Gephardt said he would expand Medicaid coverage.

He didn't give the costs of the program in his speech but said that it "will be affordable both to employers and employes alike."

Under his proposal, workers could be forced to pick up a portion of the cost of premiums. Gephardt said he wants to assure that workers' medical costs would be limited to $3,000 per year. He said he would set up regional insurance "pools" for small businesses that don't qualify for group plans from private insurance companies.

While the mandatory insurance plan could be costly, Gephardt said the expense would be less than is currently being paid by taxpayers. "Because they lack insurance, these people often allow illnesses to progress far beyond the point where they are in need of treatment, which ultimately makes the illness more expensive to treat," he said. "And the tab for that treatment is ultimately picked up by the rest of us."