By Matt Murphy
State Rep. Jamie Eldridge has drawn a clear and early distinction between himself and the other Democrats running for Congress as the only candidate to openly support universal, single-payer health care.
His stand, coupled with recent comments by candidate Niki Tsongas defending the market's ability to control health-care costs, has pushed the issue front and center in the 5th District race.
Eldridge, a progressive Democrat from Acton, supports a government-sponsored model of universal health coverage, similar to systems in place in such countries as Sweden and France.
His proposal would drastically change the way Americans receive and pay for health care, eliminating the need for private health insurers and consolidating insurance under the federal government.
He expects to roll out his full health-care proposal in early May.
"The notion that the marketplace would fix this, or that we need to experiment at the state level, doesn't work," Eldridge said. "Massachusetts passed its law last year,and it's not covering everyone. There are too many people who can't afford the premiums or the high deductibles. The only solution is universal, single-payer health care across the country."
Tsongas, in stark contrast, responded to a question on health care at a recent Greater Lowell Area Democrats breakfast by defending the market's ability to encourage competition and drive down costs.
Her statements, which she softened in an interview last week, surprised opposing campaigns and has drawn significant backlash on the Internet from liberal Democrats.
"I think, fundamentally, we need universal health care in this country," Tsongas told The Sun. "It's clear there is a growing crisis in health care, and after many years of discussion, it's time to do something. I think my comments have been misunderstood. The market does play somewhat of a role providing competition, but in and of itself, government has a major role to play."
Tsongas, who sits on the board of directors of Fallon Community Health Plan, also said she's open to any idea that would work, but believes the reform passed in Massachusetts, bringing the public and private sectors together, deserves a close look to see whether it could become a national model for health insurance.
An estimated 47 million people in the United States still do not have basic health insurance. In looking at universal health-care options, the Senate Finance Committee in March estimated it would cost $70 billion to $100 billion a year -- about the cost of the Iraq war -- to provide universal health-care coverage.
One model to expand Medicare to all Americans suggests the plan could be paid for with a 7 percent payroll tax and a dedicated 2 percent income tax, according to Physicians for a National Health Insurance Program.
By relieving employers of the responsibility to provide health insurance, wages should rise, the physicians' group states.
Eldridge said government-sponsored health insurance would not only reduce administrative and advertising costs expended now by private insurers, but encourage better preventative care to save more money and lives over time.
"It's truly a moral outrage that over 45 million people do not have health insurance in the richest country in the world," Eldridge said.
"The market works great when you're selling TVs," he added. "But the reason the market is such a poor design is because HMOs look at a family, where maybe the mother has cancer, and uses that as a reason to deny coverage because they won't make money off that family. I compare health care to public education."
Eldridge's opponents don't disagree. Candidates Eileen Donoghue, Barry Finegold, Jim Miceli and Tsongas all said they support the goal of universal health insurance in the United States.
But many of them said universal, single-payer health care is too big a leap to take for the country at this time.
Donoghue, who sits on the board of directors at Saints Medical Center in Lowell, said a single-payer system "in a perfect world, might be a nice option."
But she said government health-care programs are too overrun by bureaucracy and poor management to expect a smooth expansion to universal health coverage.
Instead, like Tsongas, she suggested watching Massachusetts' reforms closely, and said the federal government should encourage states to move toward universal coverage by finding programs that work for their residents.
Finegold, as a state legislator, joined a small group of legislators, including Eldridge, in voting to make health insurance a constitutional right.
"I want to make sure people are not denied care because of their economic means," Finegold said. "I'm open to a single-payer system, but I want to give Massachusetts' plan a chance. I don't think market forces are the way to go. They basically hurt people and cause HMOs to deny coverage."
Miceli called health care a necessity that everyone in America should be entitled to receive. But like his Democratic opponents, he said he favors a public-private partnership, such as the one being experimented with in Massachusetts, that could be "expanded nationally with a little fine-tuning."