It's heartening to see the phrase "universal health care" popping up regularly in political discourse lately. The goal of treating health care as a right, not an expensive consumer product, prompted eye-rolling in Washington even during the flush Clinton years. But gradually the politicians have caught up with the American public on this issue. Polls have long shown majority support for universal health care (one ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that respondents preferred a universal, government-provided system to the current employer-based system by a 2-to-1 margin.
Could it be that addressing the basic human needs of the citizenry is politically acceptable again? Someone tell President Bush.
And voters rank health care costs high on their list of concerns.
Now everyone from the Democratic Presidential candidates to Arnold Schwarzenegger to SEIU president Andy Stern and Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott is talking about universal health care.
The New York Times ran a piece on the front of its Sunday Week in Review section on February 18 headlined "Leftward, Ho?" tentatively declaring that the use of the phrase "universal health care" might be a sign of a "liberal moment" in politics.
Someone tell President Bush. Monday at the White House, the President heard from governors of both parties who were less interested in his remarks on the progress of the war in Iraq than in his proposed cuts to children's health care. CHIP--the popular Children's Health Insurance Program--uses a combination of federal and state money to cover the cost of getting low-income kids to the doctor. Despite the program's success, the states are facing shortfalls. Thirteen states report they will run out of money to administer the program before the end of the year. In his budget, the President has called for reversing the expansion of the program, which in some states now covers not just the poorest of the poor, but some poor children and even parents whose incomes are higher than the originally specified two-times-the-poverty-line.
"Many governors want to expand the program, which they see as a foundation of their efforts to expand coverage generally," The New York Times reports. As for the President's priorities, Governor Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania asked, "Should we be giving tax cuts to billionaires and millionaires or should we be giving health care to children? Should we make health care for children, at the very least, an entitlement?"
Note the flagrant use of the e-word. Could it be that addressing the basic human needs of the citizenry is politically acceptable again?
This is not just a Democratic issue, either. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wants all Californians to have health care, joined Rendell in lobbying the Administration.
Maybe eight years of war and budget deficits have taken enough of a toll.
At this time of year, the candidates for President are careful to have only bland and general policy prescriptions--the better to avoid attacks by competitors. Hillary Clinton, in particular, is not likely to come out with a bold and detailed health care plan, for obvious reasons.
But it's an issue that is only growing in urgency. Andy Stern told NPR, after his groundbreaking appearance with his sometimes nemesis Lee Scott of Wal-Mart, that the nation's largest employer could push the issue of universal health care to the "tipping point."
In May, Better Health Care Together, the coalition of business and labor leaders, led by Stern and Scott, will meet again to work on their project of providing all Americans with affordable health care by the year 2012. You can bet the politicians will be watching.
Ruth Conniff covers national politics for The Progressive and is a voice of The Progressive on many TV and radio programs.