The Star-Ledger


Bush Health Plan Won't Do

The Star-Ledger — Thursday, January 25, 2007

The more than 40 million citizens who have no health insurance deserve better than the tax code changes that President Bush offered them in his State of the Union address.

Bush would give tax deductions to those who pay their own health premiums or get coverage from their employers. The tax break would benefit those who are already insured. It is not likely to do what Bush claims, which is to persuade more employers to provide coverage and encourage individuals to buy coverage for themselves.

Such changes might, however, convince some employers to drop coverage and let employees find a remedy in the tax code.

Just as people who don't own a home can't take the mortgage interest deduction when they fill out their taxes, millions of the lower-income chronically uninsured – who do not have on-the-job insurance, cannot afford to buy coverage and often do not make enough to pay taxes and claim refunds – would not be able to claim Bush's health insurance deduction, even though they need help the most.

The average employer premium for family coverage is $11,480, according to the Kaiser Family Health Foundation. That figure explains why so many are uninsured.

Bush wants to tax people with employee health policies worth more than $15,000 a year. The administration says only 20 percent of policies are expensive enough to be taxed. Yet the tax on high-end policies is supposed to pay for the refunds that Bush wants to give everyone else with insurance. That sounds like the false promise that Iraqi oil would pay for the war in Iraq. Congressional budget balancers on both sides of the aisle should be concerned.

If the president truly be lieved in this plan, he would have proposed it early in his administration, when he had a Republican majority in Congress to help him push it through. The Democratic leaders in Congress have already pronounced the give-and-take-for-health plan dead on arrival. Bush had to know that was coming.

After all, he is poised to veto the top items on the Democrats' agenda, from funding for embryonic stem cell research to changes in the Medicare prescription program. The political reality is that the Democrats are not likely to hand him a victory, even if he had a good plan.

So is the health proposal really an attempt to divert attention from the disaster in Iraq? Is the plan to wave a weak version of what the nation really needs, then blame Democrats for denying the country?

Good for Bush on one count. He pledged help for states that want to provide their own universal health plans, something California and New Jersey are exploring. But as Gov. Jon Corzine noted, the promise is good news only if the new federal giving does not mean taking more away from Medicaid, Medicare and other federal health aid.

The best thing would be for the government to design a comprehensive health plan for the entire nation. There was nothing of the kind in the president's speech.

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