TERENCE SMITH: On Monday, Senator John Edwards unveiled a health care plan that would require health insurance for every American child, and offer relief for families struggling to pay medical costs. Edwards' plan would provide refundable tax credits to enable parents to buy government or private insurance to cover their children. His proposal also would offer targeted help to uninsured adults who could buy into state health care programs. Adults between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-four would be able to buy into Medicare before retirement.
Edwards maintains that the plan would cut health care costs while increasing resources for health clinics and public hospitals. To finance the plan, which would cost some $53 billion per year and cover 21 million Americans, Edwards would repeal tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, close corporate tax loopholes and trim the federal bureaucracy over the next ten years. Senator Edwards joins us now to discuss his plans. Senator, welcome.
JOHN EDWARDS: Glad to be with you.
TERENCE SMITH: Senator, of the Democratic plans unveiled thus far, yours would cost the least and cover the fewest number of Americans. Why is that the approach you took?
JOHN EDWARDS: Well, we started with the idea of trying to get the most bang for the buck, and I think among all the plans that have been proposed, my plan actually gets the most amount of benefit, the most amount of help, and the most amount of coverage per dollar, per tax dollar, that we're spending. And the second is - was to focus on something we have never done in the history of this country, which is to make certain that every child has health insurance, much the same way that every child has access to a good public education; and secondly, to provide help to families who have health insurance coverage but are having a terrible time paying the increasing cost of health care premiums.
It's focused on some ideas that some of the other plans do not focus on. It, I believe, provides help to the most vulnerable children, the most vulnerable adult population, including those over the age of 55, and those who aren't able to afford health insurance right now. And it also has significant cost containment provisions to bring down the cost of health care for all Americans, and it's affordable. This is something we can pay for. I've completely paid for it in my overall proposal and leaves significant money remaining for deficit reduction.
TERENCE SMITH: Your plan would cover some 21 million Americans, but at any given point, there are some 40 million Americans uninsured. What happens to the others?
JOHN EDWARDS: Well, here's the idea: The idea is we start by taking serious bold steps to move us in the direction of universal coverage. What I want to do is get this country to the place that everyone has access to health coverage and we make it as affordable as possible. And it's achievable, and we can pay for it. It's one thing to have a hypothetical, academic idea about what we want to do about health care in America. It's another to actually accomplish something. This debate has been going on for a long time, and we have not even come close to solving this problem. Just ask any American family.
So what we're doing is something that I know can be done, I know we can pay for, it focuses on, I think, innocent kids who have no control over whether they have health care coverage or not just starting out in life. We want to make sure they start out on the same health care footing as the education footing that we're supposed to be providing to them. And we also focus on the most vulnerable adults who don't have health care coverage to make sure that they're covered and simultaneously do something that a lot of proposals do not do, which is actually provide serious help in both bringing down the cost of health care for all Americans and helping American families pay these increasing premium costs.
For example, you mentioned this in your introduction, we give these tax credits to families who are already providing coverage or paying for coverage for their kids, because it's not just a question of covering those who aren't covered, which we very much want to do and which is the reason this proposal is out there, but, secondly, providing help to those families who are just having trouble paying the health insurance premiums each year, even though they do have coverage, so we want to provide help to both.
TERENCE SMITH: Let's talk about those costs. Your plan would cost an estimated $590 billion over ten years. The most ambitious of the different Democratic plans -- that of Congressman Gephardt -- would cost some $2.5 trillion to cover some 30 million uninsured over the same period. That seems a huge gap. Explain that for us and why the distance between the two.
JOHN EDWARDS: Well, I think simply, and I would point out, Congressman Gephardt's plan, Senator Kerry's plan I think covers some 26, 27 million. We're all in the twenty to thirty million range, and all of us are trying to move this country seriously toward universal health coverage. The question is, how do you accomplish it, who do you focus on, and how do you pay for it, which is a serious question that the American taxpayer has on all those fronts.
And I think the simple answer is, because of the way I have built this plan, it is cost efficient and very focused on bringing down the cost of health care by taking on some of the issues with HMO's, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies that are driving up health care costs. So I think there are components of my plan that are both more cost efficient, number one, so that we get more bang for the taxpayer dollar, and second, a great deal of focus on bringing down the cost of health care for all Americans.
And I would point out, which I know you're aware, most of your viewers are aware, but all of these plans are being evaluated and scored by essentially the same group of health care economists, so when I say that we're getting more coverage, more benefit for the dollar, these... this is being judged by the same people for all of these plans.
TERENCE SMITH: Your plan puts an emphasis on parents and individuals as opposed to companies and employers. Why?
JOHN EDWARDS: Because what happens is, there is an inefficiency associated with giving money to businesses, to big corporations that are already providing health care coverage on the notion that somehow that we know that this benefit will get to the families, to the employees themselves. What I'm doing is, and this is one of the reasons our plan is so effective and so efficient, is we get the coverage and the help directly to the people who are actually... who actually need the help and who are paying the premiums, that is, to the parents and the parents who are covering their children, and in addition to that, of course, to the more vulnerable adult population. So the reason for it is to have this money going directly to help families facing increasing premiums, and second, to those who actually don't have coverage. I think it's just a much more cost effective way and more efficient way to do it.
TERENCE SMITH: You have a concept in here of automatic enrollment of children at various stages. Explain what that is and why you think it's necessary.
JOHN EDWARDS: Well, because the one thing about my plan that's different and bolder than anybody else has proposed is that we... it is not a voluntary coverage of minors and kids. This is mandatory. We require it, in much the same way that we require all kids to have access to an education, to go to school. So the way we do it is there are several ways. First, we say, once a child is born, their parents will have the choice of either enrolling them in the children's health insurance program, which is the government program, or as an alternative, to include them in their employer based health care plan, and in that case, we'll give them the tax credits to help them pay for it or pay for it entirely, depending on what their income level is.
And if they're not enrolled at birth, in other words, for those kids who have already been born, who are in school, there are many ways they'll get picked up by the system: When the parents' tax return is filed, when the child starts school. There are a whole variety of ways that we'd pick up all of these kids. But the basic view, my view is, in order to deal with this serious health care crisis in this country, all of us have to take responsibility.
We need parents to take responsibility for these children they brought into the world to make sure they're covered. We, those of us in public life, in government life, we have a responsibility to provide help to those who can't provide the coverage to their kids and to their families, and second, to make it cost efficient, to make it affordable. And third, we need to put responsibility on all of those players in the health care system: Insurance companies, HMO's, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, lawyers, all of that group that can affect the cost of health care in this country need to bear their share of the responsibility. All of those things I think will make this system work the way it should.
TERENCE SMITH: Senator John Edwards, thanks so much for spelling it out for us. We appreciate it.
JOHN EDWARDS: Glad to be with you, Terry. Thank you.