Election focuses on health care

Issue: As congressional and gubernatorial elections near, medical worries dominate the political landscape despite foreign policy concerns.

August 05, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Despite the war on terrorism and a possible invasion of Iraq, issues closer to home are pushing their way to the front of the 2002 election debate.

Prominent among them is health care, which is influencing campaigns throughout the country this year.

"Health care is the dominant issue for the foreseeable future in politics," said Gov. Roy Barnes of Georgia. The moderate Democrat, who once represented hospitals as a private attorney, counts a new patients-rights law as one of the major achievements of his first term as governor.

Barnes, a candidate for re-election, said the sluggish economy is intensifying Americans' worries over medical care.

"It's tied up in job-security issues," he said in an interview. "Even those who have jobs are concerned about keeping their jobs" and holding on to the medical benefits that often go with them.

Sarah Bianchi, a consultant on health-care policy to Democratic candidates, said health care will be a campaign issue "everywhere. I can't think of one Senate race that isn't going to include issues of prescription drugs, patients' rights and affordable health care."

In Maine, Democratic Senate candidate Chellie Pingree is offering the elderly advice on how to go to Canada to buy lower-priced prescription medicines. In North Carolina, Republican Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole features her 101-year-old mother in campaign commercials about the need for a Medicare drug benefit.

From coast to coast, questions about health care often dominate candidates' sessions with voters. Anxieties about being able to afford health care if a family member becomes ill is at, or near, the top of the public's list of concerns, according to national polls.

More than a decade ago, health care rose to prominence on the national agenda, and the idea of universal health care was adopted by President Bill Clinton as a signature issue. The issue faded after the demise in 1994 of Clinton's reform plan.

But "health care is bubbling back to the surface again," said Drew Altman, president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif. "No question about it."

No health-care voting bloc exists. But the size of the elderly vote in midterm elections is the biggest reason that the subject of prescription drugs is gaining renewed attention this year.

Nationwide, at least one in five voters this fall will be 65 or older. In some states, the proportion will be significantly higher.

Health care is playing a lead role in the campaign debate for other reasons, including:

Insurance premiums that are going up 15 percent to 20 percent a year or more after a long period of modest increases.

Increases of more than 10 percent in the cost of prescription drugs.

Continued growth in the number of older Americans, the largest consumers of medical care, as advances in medicine allow people to live longer.

A stalemate in Washington on major health initiatives, such as prescription drug subsidies for the elderly, medical coverage for the roughly 39 million Americans who lack health insurance and patients' rights in dealing with health providers.

What isn't known, and won't be for some time, is how health care and other issues tied closely to the economy will influence the outcome of this fall's major battles for control of the House and Senate and governor's races in 36 states, including Maryland.

Among the questions: If, as many expect, Congress fails to enact a prescription drug plan for Medicare before the elections, will the elderly vent their feelings at the ballot box?

Will Republicans, who got a drug initiative passed in the House, block the Democrats' traditional advantage with voters on health-care issues?

How will these issues play out in campaigns at the state level, where more action on health care has taken place in recent years than in Washington?

Party officials and campaign strategists say they don't expect a midterm landslide similar to the one in 1994, which cost Democrats control of the House (and which Clinton, after his health-care debacle, read as a demand for smaller government).

But with the economy recovering slowly, stock prices falling and corporate scandals surfacing, the percentage of Americans who say the country has gotten onto the wrong track has been steadily growing, a worrisome sign for incumbents.

The number of voters who say it's time to replace their member of Congress equals the number who want to re-elect the incumbent, according to a recent poll by Bill McInturff, a Republican, and Stan Greenberg, a Democrat.

The Greenberg-McInturff poll, completed last week, also found that fighting terrorism ranks low as a voting issue. It was in sixth place, behind such topics as affordable health care, Social Security, Medicare and jobs, when Americans were asked what issue would be most important in deciding how they would vote for Congress.

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