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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The problem with Bradley's big idea

By John F. Dickerson/Washington

TIME magazine

October 4, 1999
Web posted at: 12:29 p.m. EDT (1629 GMT)

For some time Bill Bradley had been promising something big. While other campaigns parceled out policy papers, he vowed that his ideas would be truly profound. So last week Bradley launched his Zeppelin--a plan that could cost taxpayers $65 billion annually to provide health insurance for most of the 45 million Americans currently without it. "Big problems require big thinking," declared Bradley, dismissing Al Gore's health-care proposal as "timid."

Health care is the obvious issue to allow Bradley to make a splash. The number of uninsured Americans is the one social problem that has grown worse during the Clinton Administration. For a decade, the issue has offered both opportunity and peril to Democratic candidates. In 1991, it elected the Democratic underdog Harris Wofford to one of Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seats. One year later, Bill Clinton ran with it to the presidency. But the failure of the complicated plan that he and Hillary proposed contributed heavily to the Democrats' loss of Congress in 1994. This year's Democratic presidential candidates have learned the lessons of that debacle, not demanding anything of employers and proposing, among other things, tax breaks rather than government controls as a way to shrink the ranks of the uninsured.

The plan that Gore unveiled in early September--more limited than Bradley's--focuses on the elderly and children and attempts to cover no more than a third of America's 45 million uninsured. Behind Gore's plan is the recognition that in the special-interest thicket that is health care, you can make progress only by working to get coverage for one or two constituencies at a time. By contrast, Bradley's goals are nearly as grand as Hillary's: to impose unenforceable "mandates" on parents to provide their children with insurance; to expand Medicare benefits; and to offer subsidies so low-income adults can buy coverage from private insurers or join fehpb, the government plan that covers federal workers.

If Bradley's plan is a bold one, there's another B word it also brings to mind: blurry. To begin with, although the former Senator says he's still working on the fine print, most experts, including some who advised Bradley, agree that his $65 billion-a-year cost estimate is too low. Worse, he expects to use the projected budget surplus to pay for it all but has no fallback plan in the event that the surplus does not materialize. Bradley also overpromises. The subsidies he would provide to the poor in many cases won't be enough to cover actual premium costs if he plans to make good on offering a choice between private insurance plans and the government-employee plan. Unless he increases the amount, further inflating the cost of his program, Bradley may not be able to cover as many of those low-wage workers as he claims, those for whom having to pay even a few hundred dollars would keep them from buying coverage.

Bradley assumes that among those not eligible for a subsidy, millions will buy insurance because his plan would give them a tax deduction for the amount they pay in premiums. That may be doubtful. Even after Bradley's tax break, a family of four making $50,000 would still have to find $4,250 a year. On other questions, the Bradley team offers the most favorable interpretation--for instance, hoping that the federal health plan that now covers a relatively healthy middle-class work force will not see its costs go up with the arrival of poorer and potentially less healthy members.

For his part, Gore has said he too wants a change in health care, but he doesn't want this much change. What Bradley calls timid, Gore defines as responsible stewardship: insuring children with programs already in place while leaving money to shore up Medicare. So far, Gore has been as vague as Bradley on how much his proposals will cost, but he is correct to point out that Bradley's expensive plan, even if it could be paid for, doesn't seem to leave much money for fixing Medicare.

At the new Gore campaign headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., where the Vice President is moving his campaign, members of his team will be hard at work gathering a response to Bradley's first big policy salvo. Soon they are likely to have lots of colorful pie charts showing how the Vice President's policies will work out. Their efforts are a direct response to Bradley's momentum and money: the former Senator pulled even last week with the Vice President's once invincible fund-raising machine. The Vice President, under assault, has also called for debates. They will be an opportunity "to rekindle the spirit of democracy," he says. It seems as if Al Gore is trying a little big thinking of his own.

Two Fixes for Health Care

THE GORE PLAN

--Expands the current Children's Health Insurance Program to guarantee access to affordable insurance for all children by 2005

--Allocates $374 billion from the budget surplus to ensure the solvency of Medicare

--Gives 25% tax credits to small businesses and uninsured individuals to help purchase coverage

THE BRADLEY PLAN

--Mandates that all children have health insurance. Relies not on enforcement but on the "goodness of the American people"

--Subsidizes full coverage to lower-income adults and children and provides tax breaks for health-insurance premiums for all

--Provides access to the health-insurance system available to Federal Government workers


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 11, 1999

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