Some Capitol Hill advocates of socialized medicine are going against party stereotypes with their solution to providing health insurance to the growing number of uninsured people: tax credits.
Reps. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who often spar vigorously with their Republican colleagues on the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, are sounding downright conservative when it comes to using the tax code to expand healthcare coverage.
In each session of Congress, McDermott introduces legislation to create a national health insurance program-including tax credits-to cover all Americans. He will reintroduce legislation that would offer tax credits to uninsured people whose employers do not offer health insurance.
That legislation is expected to earn a co-sponsorship from Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.)-who is best known for his role as one of the House managers in President Clinton's impeachment trial-and the backing of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Stark, who wants to expand Medicare to cover all Americans, is also considering sponsoring a tax credit bill, an aide said, although the aide was less clear about which bill the congressman will wind up backing.
McDermott and Stark's support of a tax-code strategy is the latest evidence that Democrats are acquiescing to an incremental strategy toward extending healthcare coverage to the more than 40 million uninsured Americans. That approach has emerged since the spectacular failure of President Clinton's comprehensive healthcare reform plan in 1994.
Adopting the incremental strategy in 1996, Congress passed and Clinton signed into law a bill allowing workers to carry their employer-sponsored insurance with them when they leave their jobs. In 1997 lawmakers and the president agreed to spend $24 billion in federal funds over five years to support state programs extending coverage to the 10 million or more uninsured children.
"Insuring more people would be better than doing nothing," said David Schaefer, McDermott's press secretary.
The McDermott-Rogan bill, due out in the next two to three weeks, is expected to be similar to McDermott's 1997 measure. That bill, which failed to advance, offered a tax credit equaling 30% of health insurance premiums to individuals who are not offered healthcare coverage through their employers (See chart).
The measure also called for the credit to be phased out gradually for individuals earning more than $25,000 and couples earning more than $40,000.
Jeff Solsby, Rogan's press secretary, said the the chief sponsors' divergent political views strengthen the bill.
"If you can get McDermott and Rogan, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, together on the same bill, other members should see this is a good compromise to move forward with," Solsby said.
Although Stark hasn't decided whether to support the bill, a Democratic committee staffer said recent moves to increase the value of the tax credit have encouraged the congressman.
If the value of the tax credit doesn't contribute significantly to the total cost of health insurance coverage, the aide said, the credit won't cut significantly into the ranks of the uninsured.
Stark envisions that such small tax credits would encourage the purchases of medical savings accounts, which many liberals dislike because they contend the accounts would cause healthy people to drop out of insurance pools and would increase costs for sicker beneficiaries who continue to buy traditional comprehensive coverage.
The aide said Stark has spoken favorably of legislation sponsored by Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) that would give a credit worth up to $3,600 per year to families not eligible for employer-sponsored insurance.
Indeed, Norwood set the value of the credit based on how much it would help families buy insurance, said his spokesman, John Stone. For instance, Stone said, the $300-per-month tax credit would cut significantly into the $411-per-month average that a California family with a 45-year-old head of household pays to enroll in a PPO.
In a demonstration that Norwood's bill also could draw bipartisan support, Stark's friendly comments about the legislation come despite its co-sponsorship by House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas), Stark's usual nemesis.
"I think it's exciting that we may have hit on something on affordability that both sides of the aisle can agree on," Stone said. "That's a real breakthrough."
Although friendly to the idea, Rep. William Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee, through which a tax-credit bill probably would move, said he would prefer more-comprehensive legislation to try to reduce the number of the uninsured.