EDINBORO, Pa. - Promising to lower the cost of health care, Sen. John Kerry embarked on a weeklong effort to chastise President Bush for presiding over a "broken" health care system, with rising premiums and deductibles and more people living without health insurance.
"Today, regular checkups are emptying family checkbooks," Kerry told Edinboro University nursing students. "Waiting for a doctor's bill is causing as much anxiety as waiting for a diagnosis."
He accused the Bush administration of being "oblivious" to the personal pain of people struggling to cope with the bureaucracy and expense of health insurance.
Kerry's presidential campaign released a report showing that family premiums have risen on average by $2,777 over the past four years, and Americans are paying more for health insurance than are people in any other country. The campaign also unveiled an Internet ad showing Bush saying, "I'll have the goal, the idea of making sure people have got affordable health care and insurance policies to make sure they're able to pay for them."
The ad then says that "Bush has no plan to lower rates."
The push on health care was carefully coordinated with other Democrats, the Democratic National Committee and health care organizations marking "Covering the Uninsured Week."
But it's not clear that Kerry can break through the national focus on Iraq and the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Each week, the Massachusetts senator has focused on a different public policy area, from improving education to restoring manufacturing jobs, despite the flurry of bad news coming from Iraq.
"If we lose the focus on war and terrorism, health care is likely to jump up and be quite prominent," said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard's School of Public Health.
Big issue for voters
Blendon said opinion polls show health care is fourth among voters' lists of concerns, behind the Iraq war, terrorism and the economy. He said voters do not believe Bush has tried to address the health care problem, despite last year's enactment of a huge but disputed prescription drug plan for senior citizens on Medicare.
"If [Kerry] can get people to focus on the question of the availability of the health care issue, he'll have an issue he doesn't have to solve. He can just say, 'I'll do better,'" said Blendon.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 77 percent of Americans said increasing the number of people covered by health insurance is a very important priority for the president and Congress. And more people said they wanted to lower the cost of health insurance than increase the number of people covered by insurance.
This week Kerry is traveling to battleground states, such as Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas, to talk about his plan to lower the cost of health insurance, how rising insurance costs affect small businesses, and the need for improved veterans' health care.
In a speech in Edinboro, on the border with Ohio, Kerry said he has a plan to lower family premiums by $1,000. In part, he said, he would accomplish that by using better technology in the health care system, by weeding out "irresponsible" lawsuits and by allowing people to buy prescription drugs from Canada.
Kerry's plan, which he unveiled months earlier, also would provide for the federal government to assume catastrophic health cases, a reform that he says would lighten the load for businesses and employees.
GOP derides plan
Republicans quickly accused Kerry of being late to the health care debate and derided his proposal as ineffective.
"John Kerry's campaign rhetoric on health care will do nothing to reduce the costs of health care for America's families," said Steve Schmidt, spokesman for the Bush campaign.
And House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican, told reporters that Kerry's plan would not do what he's advertising: "He doesn't reduce the costs, he shifts them."
Still, Kerry has armed himself with a wealth of statistics, particularly geared to the important electoral states. In Pennsylvania, for example, health insurance costs have risen an average of $2,756 over the past four years, with a family policy now averaging $9,477.
In Ohio, costs have risen $2,704, and policies for an average family now cost $9,300. And in Illinois, premiums have increased by an average of about $2,960 for a family, reaching $10,180, the campaign said in its report. The Bush campaign did not dispute the statistics.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.