By MARTIN C. BRICKETTO
Assemblywoman Linda Stender, D-Union, says there should be a mandate that people have health insurance, while state Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, said he is open to the health-care plans of both presidential candidates.
The two major-party candidates running for a 7th Congressional District House seat both say the current health-care system needs to be reformed.
There were more than 1.3 million New Jersey residents without health care as of 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of 2000, there were 26,858 uninsured residents in Somerset County, 9,116 uninsured residents in Hunterdon, 68,444 uninsured residents in Union and 93,273 uninsured residents in Middlesex, according to the bureau.
As part of his plan, GOP candidate Sen. John McCain is proposing a $2,500 tax credit for individuals and a $5,000 tax credit for families to offset the cost of insurance.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the presumptive Democratic candidate, is calling for a hybrid system that includes a new public insurance program, a National Health Insurance exchange for buying private insurance, a mandate that all children have health insurance, and an expansion of existing programs such as Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
Lance wants to start with tort reform.
"I think that doctors are leaving the profession because of a lack of tort reform, and this means a capping of punitive damages, for example,'' Lance said. Lance also said Medicare has to be reformed and called for a bipartisan commission at the national level to investigate the issue.
Lance said he is "open to the plans as enunciated by both presidential candidates,'' but also noted a roughly $10 trillion federal debt and the country's recent economic downturn as hurdles to achieving universal health care immediately.
"I don't think we can solve this problem immediately and I am not promising universal health care overnight, '' Lance said, also saying the eventual goal should be to insure as many Americans as possible.
Stender supports a hybrid model similar to the one proposed by Obama. She said health-care reform must mean a "shared responsibility'' with government, businesses and individuals contributing.
Specifically, Stender supports a mandate requiring people to have health insurance, such as with car insurance. The system has to offer affordable options, she said, mentioning a Medicare-style insurance plan, a regulated private plan or the coverage people currently have.
Obama drew fire from some Democrats during the race for the party's nomination because his plan did not include a mandate for coverage, unlike Sen. Hillary Clinton's plan.
Stender spokeswoman Abby Curran described the mandate issue as """an example of where Linda really believes Obama's plan requires further review to ensure every American is covered in a system of shared responsibility that guarantees choice in coverage.''
Lance does not believe in a mandate for health insurance yet.
"I think first we have to make health care more affordable,'' Lance said, indicating the need for tort reform as well as helping small businesses provide health insurance for their employees by purchasing coverage at similar rates to large corporations and government entities.
"That would help, because among those who are uninsured, many are employed by small business,'' Lance said.
Stender said that like Obama, she supports a hybrid approach to health-care reform.
"This is a very complex challenge that we face, there's not a silver bullet that's going to solve all of the issues, and there are certainly good aspects of our system, in that people do have choice and are able to get quality care when they have good insurance,'' Stender said, also adding that many people are paying too much for health care. Health-insurance premiums have risen four times faster than wages over the past six years, she said.
Bridgewater Councilman Michael Hsing, who is running as an independent, said he sees a tiered system of government insurance using vouchers or some kind of national health-care card as feasible.
Hsing explained that the tier would include a bottom tier with basic coverage, such as $50 for a visit to the doctor, with the patient paying the rest. Higher-tier policies, with higher premiums, would cover more complex care such as hospitalization or surgery.
Hsing suggested he didn't want to create a system that was "government run'' or would impose mandates on doctors.
"You don't want to downgrade a service they're providing, but you want to provide a safety net for people who really need medical attention and also the ability to go to the hospital,'' Hsing said.
Organizations such as Physicians for a National Health Program have called for a "single-payer'' system in which a single public health insurance plan would cover all Americans, arguing it would improve access to health care and cut overhead costs.
Stender said the cost of taking on a single-payer system at this time would be staggering, citing "record deficits'' at the federal level and economic challenges. Lance also said he did not believe America would have a single-payer system.
Each candidate said they have confronted health-care insurance issues during their time in the Legislature.
Stender recalled working with Assemblyman Jerry Green, D-Union, to secure additional funding for Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, now closing on Wednesday, Aug. 13, "because it has collapsed under the weight of the uninsured costs.''
"I think that just highlights for me how important it is that people do have insurance and that the emphasis has to be on Americans having access to health care in a way that they don't have to make choices between putting a roof over their head or food on their table or taking care of their health,'' Stender said.
Lance pointed to his vote earlier this year to expand the state's Family Care health plan for low-income residents, including children at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below. He was criticized for that vote by fellow Republican Kate Whitman during a heated, seven-way primary for the party's nomination.
Both Stender and Lance said they would have voted for an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which President George Bush blocked last year.
Lance also noted his sponsorship of a law passed in 2001 requiring insurance companies in New Jersey to cover colonoscopies.
"In my judgment, that type of legislation not only saves lives, but saves money,'' Lance said.