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The Candidates on Health Care

Williams Cole

Given the long and sordid history of GOP connections to the pharmaceutical industry, health care and, especially, prescription drugs are issues Democrats usually have in their favor. This makes all the more disturbing recent Republican attempts to co-opt these issues with glossy pronouncements of working for prescription drug coverage while at the same time attaching language to the Homeland Security bill that would absolve drug conglomerates like Eli Lilly from paying damages for thimerosal litigation. Consistent as ever, Bush even awarded a contract to provide “universal health care” to 25 million Iraqis within a year while pushing tax cuts that will add to the already 44 million uninsured Americans.

Carol Moseley Braun
She is one of only two candidates to promote a Canada-style single-payer health plan. Moseley Braun points out that the current health-care system accounts for 15 percent of the GDP, a higher rate than any other industrialized nation, while leaving millions without health insurance. She would introduce a health proposition based on the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program that, because not employer based, would allow freelancers, small business owners and the unemployed to receive health insurance and seniors to receive prescription drug coverage. The payment system would be combined with Medicaid and Medicare in order to reduce bureaucracy and would be financed by hikes in income tax. As a senator in 1994 she fought the pharmaceutical industry-supported Product Liability Fairness Act, a bill that granted significant immunity to drug companies.
Wesley Clark
While encouraging in his power to debate Bush regarding the military and foreign policy, one worries that, because his domestic policies are so undeveloped, this candidate may actually be vulnerable during a debate with Dubya on health care. Nevertheless, he has identified health care as a “crisis” in the country but has invited much criticism, if not outright dismissal, from other Democratic candidates, most of whom have well-developed health-care proposals. Time to enlist some good people, General.
Howard Dean
The Doctor obviously has a lead in credibility regarding health-related issues—and it seems like a record to boot: He signed into Vermont law an insurance program that gave 99 percent of children health coverage and a third of elderly residents state help with prescription drugs. He also is the only candidate to release a comprehensive plan on prescription drugs, including supporting legalizing drug re-importation from Canada; banning direct ads from drug companies, which have climbed from $55 million to $2 billion in the last 12 years; creating a national law that forces physicians to disclose gifts from the pharmaceutical industry; and expanding the list of preferred drug lists that would lead physicians to cheaper yet effective drugs and allow states more flexibility in controlling drug costs. He’s also a founder of the Business for Affordable Medicine coalition. But his high profile on medical issues also has invited criticism from other candidates who point out his alignment with Newt Gingrich in 1995 criticizing Medicare and his 2002 attempt to eliminate a prescription drug program in Vermont.
John Edwards
The southern senator shines among politicians in his battles with pharmaceutical conglomerates and has called the lobbying power of the drug industry “a scary thing to see up close.” His successful record as a trial lawyer winning suits against HMOs and the pharmaceutical industry compelled him to fight Republican efforts to absolve litigation against drug companies like Eli Lilly. He said he wants to make health care coverage a “birthright” and has co-sponsored a Patient’s Bill of Rights. In June he unveiled a proposal to reduce prescription drug costs. His crusade even earned him the nickname, at least in the Irish Times, the “Erin Brockovich of Capitol Hill.” He reported small investments in pharmaceutical and health-care company stocks.
Dick Gephardt
Seemingly more and more in an attack mode, Gephardt has criticized Kerry’s and Dean’s plans, saying they would prevent employers from providing health care, proposing, instead, a system that would build on the existing employer-based system funded by repealing tax cuts implemented by the Bush administration. Gephardt has a good record of speaking out against the pharmaceutical industry and has criticized Republicans for supporting legislation “crafted” by drug companies. “We’re going to take on a Republican Party that’s been bought by the pharmaceutical industry. We’re gonna beat ’em and put policy in that’s good for seniors,” he said.
John Kerry
With years of service in the Senate battling GOP efforts to change Medicare, Kerry’s health-care proposal nonetheless seems a like a comprehensive, yet confusing, mishmash of tax credits, “rebate pools” and changes to federal programs. He has been vocal in appealing to health-care issues in the veteran’s community, stating “there are veterans waiting six months just to get their first-time prescriptions from doctors.” He’s also said “focusing on coverage without reducing the costs of health care for all Americans is treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease, the cause.” Unfortunately, the senator reported significant investments in drug companies with reported sales of at least $545,000 in Merck stock, sales of more than $100,000 in GlaxoSmithKline stock and purchases of more than $2 million in Wyeth stock. A trust that benefits Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz-Kerry, included more than $1 million in Pfizer stock and a similar amount of stock in the pharmacy chain Walgreens.
Dennis Kucinich
Kucinich is one of two candidates to endorse a government-run, universal, single-payer system paid for by reducing defense spending and provides a detailed plan outlining how much it would cost over the next decade. He also has been the only one active with the Vaccine Injury Compensation Panel, asking Congress for an open debate around issues of lawsuits against Eli Lilly for the use of thimerosal. Last January he was part of a group that fought to excise last-minute language in the Homeland Security Bill that would absolve pharmaceutical companies from paying damages. He is the only candidate who would eliminate the role of private health-care providers in favor of a new system that would, among other things, allow the government to reduce expenditures by buying prescription drugs in bulk.
Joseph Lieberman
Lieberman has not yet laid out a comprehensive health-care plan, although his record is more positive than his stances on most others. He has come out in favor of legalizing drug re-importation from Canada and changing patent rules to allow for cheaper generic drugs. He also has proposed $150 billion for the American Center for Cures, which would provide funds to small drug companies to research cures for chronic diseases, and has stated that “no American senior should have to choose between food, rent and the prescription drugs needed to live a decent life.” He also has small investments in pharmaceutical and health-care company stocks, and his wife, Hadassah, was a onetime communications director for a pharmaceutical company.
Al Sharpton
The Reverend has warned congressional Democrats not to compromise with Republicans when it comes to the current prescription drug legislation on Capitol Hill, and has said that instead of spending billions on war, the Bush administration should focus on funding education, housing and prescription drugs for military families and low-income Americans. “Don’t love the troops when they are in uniform overseas and not love them when they are in blue jeans at home,” he said. He came out in 1994 for a single-payer plan and criticized the plan then drafted by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) as “a mere touch up.” He’s silent on any details about a health-care plan.

Williams Cole is a contributing editor of the Brooklyn Rail and a former Fulbright scholar in media at the London School of Economics. He also is a documentary filmmaker currently producing a film about New York under Rudy Giuliani.
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