JIM LEHRER: Now, the launch of another series of conversations with the democratic presidential candidates. This time the focus is on health care. Margaret Warner has the first.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri was the first Democratic contender to offer a health care plan aimed at the nation's 41 million uninsured. It proposes providing health insurance to virtually all Americans through their employers and repealing President Bush's tax cuts to pay for it. Among the highlights, all employers would be required to buy health insurance for their workers. They would receive a federal tax credit to offset 60 percent of the insurance cost, more than double the current tax benefit. To finance this plan which could cost well more than $200 billion a year, Gephardt would repeal President Bush's ten-year $1.3 trillion tax cuts of 2001 and any pending Bush taxes as well. Congressman Gephardt joins us now. And welcome, congressman.
This is the most expensive sweeping health care proposal since the Clinton health care plan of 1993. Is the country ready for this?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think the country is ready for it and I'm excited about being able to give people a real choice in this election. If they like the Bush tax cuts, they ought to vote for George Bush. If they really want guaranteed health insurance that can never be taken away from them, then they ought to vote for me because that's my plan. We help employers who not only don't now give their employees health insurance, we also help employers who already help their employees. And one of the things you need to understand is that most Americans even if they have health insurance are worried they're going to lose it. So my plan takes away that anxiety. I also help state and local municipal employees and state employees and not-for-profit employees. This is really national health insurance through the present system and I think given that choice, Americans will choose health care.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's look at a couple of specifics -- first of all, requiring all employers to provide health insurance, even the smallest mom-and-pop family-run business with one employee. Couldn't that be a burden?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, understand how the plan works. All I require is that every employer provide plans to the employee, in other words offer plans for them to choose from, and then they have to at least pass on the 60 percent credit, the credit worth 60 percent of cost of whatever plan is chosen. They don't have to add anything to it. So this is not like an employer mandate, which was in the Clinton plan. This is simply requiring that they offer plans and that they offer the tax credit to the employee so they can use it to put together with the 40 percent they would have to put up to get the plan. If they offer more than 60 percent, I'd go right up with them, I'd give them 60 percent of say 20 percent they put on top of it, so we cot get people more than 60 percent if that was their choice.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, let's take another element that you referred to, but that you would take all the big companies, state and local governments, they already offer health insurance, and you are going to subsidize them as well with double the tax benefit. That adds a lot of cost to your plan. Why is that necessary?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, it's necessary because in almost every situation across the country, people are now worried, employers are worried that they are either going to have to drop coverage or they're going to have to drop benefits or raise the expenses to the employees to an intolerable level. This is a problem in almost every company in America and for every employee in America. People are worried. I have people come up to me all the time and say, "I have health insurance, but I'm losing benefits. I'm not going to be able to afford it. I'm worried about losing it." So this is a tremendous problem for both employers and employees that we really need to solve. Besides that, I think it's really bad policy to say to the employers who have not given their people insurance, "we're going to help with you a doubling of the tax credit, but we're not going to do anything for the companies that have done the right thing through the years." One thing I learned in advocating the Clinton plan a few years ago, is that if you distinguish between people and treat them unfairly, you really get into trouble in being able to get the plan through the Congress. So I think this is a very important feature of my plan and will allow us to be able to get the plan through. A plan you can't pass is worse than no plan at all.
MARGARET WARNER: Now to fund this as we described, you would repeal, rollback the 2001 tax cut, some of which have already taken effect. Can Democrats really sell a tax increase?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, it's not a tax increase. This is a very important point. It's a different kind of tax cut. And I think it's a better tax cut for most people. Most people get $300, $500, $700, $800 out of the Bush tax cut. The economists that have studied my plan think that my plan gets $1,800 a year to the average tax payer or average family in terms of added health care benefits or added wage benefits, so I think I've got a better tax cut that is fully competitive and superior to what George Bush's tax cut would do for people. And I offer it as a choice. I think elections need to be about important things. I'm trying to give people important choices and this is certainly one of the most important ones. And again, I think most people will choose health care over the $300, $500, $600 tax cut they get from the Bush tax cuts.
MARGARET WARNER: As you know, economists who have scored this plan say that even all the money in the Bush tax cut is not enough to pay for it and that in fact it will drive the deficits even higher than the Bush taxes. Are you essentially saying here that you think offering this near-universal coverage is more important than bringing the budget back to balance?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I don't subscribe to that theory. I think my tax cut is less expensive than the Bush tax cut, especially if you figure in the one that's going through the Congress right now. When you put those two together, you are probably at or above $2 trillion over ten years. We think that more than adequately covers, but...
MARGARET WARNER: But you don't deny that in fact it would contribute to higher deficits? I mean, it's...
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, the Bush tax cuts are going to contribute to higher deficits, but I would also argue to you that my tax cut is more stimulative to the...
MARGARET WARNER: You are talking about your health care plan?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: My health care plan tax cut. It's a tax cut for health care-- is more stimulative of the economy. It will build more jobs. It will take costs off corporate books, it will put money in people's pockets because they'll be able to pay less for their health care. It will help corporations be able to hire more people or make capital investments. It really is much more stimulative than the Bush tax cuts, most of which went to the wealthiest Americans. And we already have the jury in on the Bush tax cuts, they haven't worked. Jobs haven't been created. They are not solving our economic problems. So the best way to get rid of this deficit is to get the economy to go forward. That's what my tax cut health care plan is designed to do.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, many of your rivals for the Democratic nomination have offered plans of their own and they've also, all, not all, but many of them have attacked yours. Let me read you what they have said. Howard Dean calls yours "a pie in the sky radical revamping of our health care system. Bob Graham has said "we have tried that before," referring to the Clinton plan. Senator Lieberman called it "a return to the big spending Democratic idea of the past." And John Edwards called it "a giveaway that takes money out of pockets of working people and gives it to corporations." What is your answer to al that?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I'm happy to hear their thoughts. This is what a debate should be about. I would rather be debating health care than whether George Bush should have gone on the aircraft carrier with a helicopter or an airplane. This to me is a real issue in people's lives. My answer to all the critics is first of all, I would like to see your plan and some of them have plans, but some of them don't. So I think before we get into a big critique it would be nice if everybody would come forward with a plan that would be designed to solve this problem. But beyond that I think my plan is the best plan. I think their critics are wrong. Their criticism is wrong. This is a plan that is fair to everybody, that will get everybody covered with guaranteed health insurance that can't be taken away faster than any of the other plans. It's not complicated. It's based on the present system and I think I can better pass my plan than any of the other plans. I can get business for my plan, labor for it, the health care industry for it. I think it is the kind of clear simple plan that the American people are waiting to see put into action and I think can I get it done.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, thanks.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Tomorrow we'll talk to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.