Bill Bradley struck back hard at Vice President Gore's criticism of his health care plan today, saying his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination simply proposes to "take a broken system and throw more money at it."
At a morning forum sponsored by four media organizations here, the former New Jersey senator accused his opponent of drawing "the wrong lesson" from the failure of the Clinton administration's ambitious 1993 health reform plan and offering only "a few small, symbolic changes" in a system that is failing millions of families.
Bradley, who rarely has criticized his opponent by name, repeatedly did so today as he listed the "specific differences" between their health proposals:
"I cover all children. He does not. I broaden access to all Americans. He does not. I help millions of hard-working Americans pay for the health insurance they have. He does not. I support prevention. He does not. I make health care portable so it can be taken from job to job. He does not. I give the poor on Medicaid something better. He continues to take a broken system and throw more money at it."
The forum offered Bradley a chance to respond to a growing assault on his signature campaign proposal that Gore began Oct. 27 in their first televised forum in Hanover, N.H. Since then, Gore speeches and ads have contended that Bradley's plan would consume the entire projected budget surplus, leave no money for future Medicare needs and abandon needy families and nursing home patients who rely on Medicaid payments. Gore strategists credit the issue for halting his slide in the leadoff primary state and putting Bradley's chances in the Feb. 1 voting here at risk.
Bradley's proposal would subsidize health insurance for families of modest income to pay for their current policies or buy from insurers who market to federal government employees. It would require parents to buy policies for children at birth, and subsidize the premiums up to age 18 for those who could not afford them. It would add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and double the funding for community health centers to provide preventive care. Bradley says 95 percent of Americans would be covered.
Bradley says the cost, which he estimates at $65 billion a year, could be financed from budget surpluses, closing unspecified tax loopholes and savings from automation of administrative costs. Gore insists the cost would be much higher.
Bradley seemed particularly intent today on combating the message in Gore ads that he would "abolish Medicaid," the federal-state program for needy families that also pays nursing home bills for retirees without personal resources.
Defending his plan to help those families buy private insurance, Bradley said it is Gore who has taken an irresponsible approach. Not only do Medicaid benefits vary widely from state to state, he said, but low reimbursement rates mean that barely one-third of doctors are willing to treat Medicaid patients. "As a result," he said, "they go to emergency rooms after they are already sick for the most expensive care. Under the plan I have offered, they would have private health insurance to get care before they become sick."
In response to a question, Bradley conceded that his plan would need to be adjusted for states like New Hampshire, where the questioner said the only insurance option for federal employees is a policy costing a family about $8,000 a year.
Bradley said he expected the details of his plan will change as a result of many such suggestions. In what appeared to be an implied criticism of the approach Hillary Rodham Clinton took in framing the 1993 administration proposal, which failed without ever being brought to a vote in Congress, Bradley said: "We must consult with all who have interest in the health care system, knowing that no one has all the answers. If we listen genuinely, the contours of the plan will change. But the basic commitment must not be abandoned."
Bradley said it was ironic that in 1993 "when the budget was in deficit $290 billion and Medicare was six years from bankruptcy . . . President Clinton and Al Gore decided that we needed national health insurance."
When that plan failed, he continued, "the lesson that Al Gore seems to have learned is that big, bold things can't happen in Washington, so let's do a few small, symbolic things. But that is the wrong lesson. . . . Ultimately, it is the task of leadership to set the goal and point the way, and then to get there, come hell or high water."
In contrast to 1993, Bradley said, "Now we have a budget surplus. Medicare is secured through 2015. Social Security is solid. . . . If now is not the time, when is?"