Will actual policy issues play any role in this election? Not if the White House can help it. But if some policy substance does manage to be heard over the clanging of conveniently timed terror alerts, voters will realize that they face some stark choices. Here's one of them: tax cuts for the very well-off versus health insurance.
John Kerry has proposed an ambitious health care plan that would extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans, while reducing premiums for the insured. To pay for that plan, Mr. Kerry wants to rescind recent tax cuts for the roughly 3 percent of the population with incomes above $200,000.
George Bush regards those tax cuts as sacrosanct. I'll talk about his health care policies, such as they are, in another column.
Considering its scope, Mr. Kerry's health plan has received remarkably little attention. So let me talk about two of its key elements.
First, the Kerry plan raises the maximum incomes under which both children and parents are eligible to receive benefits from Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. This would extend coverage to many working-class families, who often fall into a painful gap: they earn too much money to qualify for government help, but not enough to pay for health insurance. As a result, the Kerry plan would probably end a national scandal, the large number of uninsured American children.
Second, the Kerry plan would provide "reinsurance" for private health plans, picking up 75 percent of the medical bills exceeding $50,000 a year. Although catastrophic medical expenses strike only a tiny fraction of Americans each year, they account for a sizeable fraction of health care costs.
By relieving insurance companies and H.M.O.'s of this risk, the government would drive down premiums by 10 percent or more.
This is a truly good idea. Our society tries to protect its members from the consequences of random misfortune; that's why we aid the victims of hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. Catastrophic health expenses, which can easily drive a family into bankruptcy, fall into the same category. Yet private insurers try hard, and often successfully, to avoid covering such expenses. (That's not a moral condemnation; they are, after all, in business.)
All this does is pass the buck: in the end, the Americans who can't afford to pay huge medical bills usually get treatment anyway, through a mixture of private and public charity. But this happens only after treatments are delayed, families are driven into bankruptcy and insurers spend billions trying not to provide care.
By directly assuming much of the risk of catastrophic illness, the government can avoid all of this waste, and it can eliminate a lot of suffering while actually reducing the amount that the nation spends on health care.
Still, the Kerry plan will require increased federal spending. Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University, an independent health care expert who has analyzed both the Kerry and Bush plans, puts the net cost of the plan to the federal government at $653 billion over the next decade. Is that a lot of money?
Not compared with the Bush tax cuts: the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that if these cuts are made permanent, as the administration wants, they will cost $2.8 trillion over the next decade.
The Kerry campaign contends that it can pay for its health care plan by rolling back only the cuts for taxpayers with incomes above $200,000. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, which has become the best source for tax analysis now that the Treasury Department's Office of Tax Policy has become a propaganda agency, more or less agrees: it estimates the revenue gain from the Kerry tax plan at $631 billion over the next decade.
What are the objections to the Kerry plan? One is that it falls far short of the comprehensive overhaul our health care system really needs. Another is that by devoting the proceeds of a tax-cut rollback to health care, Mr. Kerry fails to offer a plan to reduce the budget deficit. But on both counts Mr. Bush is equally, if not more, vulnerable. And Mr. Kerry's plan would help far more people than it would hurt.
If we ever get a clear national debate about health care and taxes, I don't see how President Bush will win it.
Originally published in The New York Times, 7.9.04