Thursday, September 4, 2003

Lieberman touts health plans

By Anthony Schinella/Staff Writer

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

This is the fifth in a series of articles about the Democratic presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Behind a backdrop of clanging dishes and silverware, Democratic presidential candidate Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman plunked himself down in a small booth in the back room of the Puritan Restaurant in Manchester to talk health care.

Ignoring the noise from the crowds enjoying their Sunday brunches, Lieberman promoted his "KeepCare" initiative to about 30 voters. The plan would provide a combination of tax credits, subsidies, and new choices for workers who have lost their health insurance due to layoffs. Under the plan, low-wage and unemployed workers with COBRA premiums would receive a 65 percent refundable tax credit. No worker would be required to pay more than 7.5 percent of their income to receive the coverage.

Lieberman - who was Vice President Al Gore's running mate in 2000 - said the current administration had done "absolutely nothing ... less than nothing" to address the problems with health care and lack of insurance.

"When I go around America, I find that the working people of this country are worried as much about their health insurance as they are about their jobs," he said. "We have some of the best doctors in the world. But a lot of them and a lot of patients don't feel they are getting adequate health care."

Along with the tax credits, Lieberman advanced two other plans: MediKids and MediChoice. The MediKids plan would cover all children in America currently without health insurance - about 9 million, according to the candidate. Lieberman called the child health care crisis "just plain unacceptable."

"[Under MediKids], when children are born, they will have a name, a birth certificate, and a MediKids card which would guarantee health insurance until age 25," he said.

The MediChoice plan would offer lower health insurance prices by combining the purchasing power of millions of uninsured citizens, Lieberman said. Insurance company profits would also be limited to 2 percent, he said, similar to plans offered to federal government employees.

If elected, Lieberman would also create a new program to find treatments and cures to devastating diseases, like cancers and diabetes. The initiative - called American Center for Cures - would be coordinated with the National Institute of Health and other science foundations to eradicate disease.

"I know we can do better," Lieberman said, "And I am totally committed to dealing with this problem in a constructive way."

Dr. K. J. Lee, an author and member of the American Academy of Otolaryngology, worked with Lieberman on his health care platform and sat in on the discussion Sunday. He called the plan affordable and reasonable.

"The senator's plan will eliminate the prior disease exclusion," he said. "Therefore, the plan will guarantee coverage between jobs."

Peter Sullivan, a Manchester attorney, said he and his wife lost their health insurance coverage when she was recently laid off from her job. Some family members helped her financially so she could pick up COBRA coverage for two months.

However, the costs, about $700 per month, were "still a difficult financial strain for the both of us," he said. Sullivan said most of his income went to keeping his business alive and his family relied on her employer's plan for coverage.

Lieberman was critical of the fact that health insurance for many people was tied to their employment. After a job is lost, families can face severe financial problems, he said.

Lee added that health care cost had increased exponentially more than the rate of inflation. But he said Lieberman's plan would use the private sector, with government oversight; in order maximize the greatest amount of coverage with the least amount of money.

Restaurant co-owner Chuck Stergiou said he employed 225 including 75 full-time employees, who share the cost of the company's plan. But in recent years, there have been problems with costs.

"This year, we had a rate increase of 15 percent, which didn't seem bad," Stergiou said. "But every year it is a battle to see how we can keep the costs of premiums down. We have been spoiled the last six to eight years. We got to the point where people would just go [to the doctor] because it was cheap. The toughest thing is finding a balance between employees using health insurance in the right way and [those who misuse the benefits]. As an employer, it is difficult. I hear complaints from employees that the premiums are going up while the benefits are going down."

Lieberman agreed it was difficult to find a balance. He called the Puritan Restaurant "a legendary place," noting when his wife was a nearby camp counselor, she used to eat at the restaurant regularly. Lieberman added that Stergiou had named two ice cream flavors after him and his wife, "Heavenly Hadassah" and "Cup of Joe," a coffee-flavored ice cream.

"I'm winning the ice cream primary," he joked.

In a short interview after the roundtable discussion, Lieberman called himself "an independent minded Democrat," who had learned from the mistakes of the Clinton Administration and missteps he believed other Democratic contenders were taking, especially on the health care issue.

"If you try to swallow the entire health care problem at once, you are probably going to choke," he said. "I pick off the most urgent pieces - children and workers who lose their jobs. I am also building a public/private partnership that will not be completely government controlled. I listen to people as go around campaigning for president. Besides losing their jobs, fears about health care are number one."