In the News
In the Know
ON THE COVER: CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION JOHN CORBITT AND MARK PINKSTON (CORBIS); SUPERSTOCK/MASTERFILE; CHARLES DHARAPAK/AP PHOTO (LEAVITT); DAVID KOHL/AP PHOTO (SEBELIUS) THIS PAGE: BOB DAUGHERTY/AP PHOTO (KENNEDY); HULTON ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES (NIXON)
“Asweeping new program,” Presi- Don't Miss This Opportunity, Too
dent Richard M. Nixon called it when he introduced
his bold national health plan in 1971. “One that builds
on the strengths of the present system, and one that
does not destroy these strengths. One based on part-
nership, not paternalism.” ; Nixon’s plan required
employers to provide health care insurance for their
employees. It provided federal subsidies for the poor
and created rural health clinics
and a network of state commit-
tees to set industry standards,
guarantee basic coverage and
coordinate insurance for the
self-employed. In the process, it
would have extended health care
coverage to almost all Ameri-
cans. ; The late Sen. Edward M.
Kennedy, author of his own na-
tional plan, led the critics. “It’s
really a partnership between
the administration and insur-
KENNEDY AND NIXON
ance companies,” he raged. “It’s not a partnership between patients
and doctors of this nation.”
That was then. On reflection, Kennedy came to view the Nixon pro-
posal as a missed opportunity. “We should have jumped on that,” he
told the Boston Globe earlier this year. In the years since Democrats
rejected Nixon’s “sweeping new program,”
battle lines have hardened and the partisan
breach has widened. And costs have soared.
When Nixon proposed his plan, health care
spending accounted for less than $100 bil-
lion, 7 percent of the $1.4 trillion U.S. econ-
omy. Today, it accounts for $2.3 trillion,
approximately 17 percent of the economy.
And the number of uninsured has nearly
doubled—to 46.7 million last year.
Republicans have championed the free
market as the key to reform. They stymied
the last major overhaul effort 16 years ago.
With the help of the drug industry and AARP,
they expanded Medicare with a prescription drug plan. They created
tax-free health savings accounts (and named them after Republican
chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee). As recently as
April, House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to convert Medicare
into a system of vouchers that future retirees could use to purchase
private insurance. And they seem to have set their sights on scuttling
President Obama’s health care initiative.
Democrats, just as stridently, have pursued successive iterations of
Kennedy’s original, federally funded and regulated plan. The Clinton
administration’s public and private plan, hatched in private and in suf-
focating detail, collapsed.
Today, with control of Congress and the White House, Democrats are
advancing Obama’s plan, a combination of private, employer-provided
and individual-based coverage and care. It’s striking how closely that
resembles the plan outlined by Nixon four decades ago.
There’s a lesson here, and an important one that Kennedy learned
four decades too late: Don’t allow partisanship and ideology to blind
you to opportunity. But who in the nation’s all but dysfunctional
capital has learned Kennedy’s lesson? Who has the common sense
and the willingness to listen? Who will set aside the partisanship
that has paralyzed the health care debate? Who will step forward
and seize the opportunity before them? —Jim Toedtman, Editor
AARP Bulletin October 2009, Volume 50, No. 8 (USPS Number 002-900; ISSN 1044-1123) is published monthly except February and August by AARP, 601 E St. N.W., Washington, DC 20049 (telephone: 1-888-687-2277). Internet site: bulletin.aarp.org, “The Newspaper of 50-Plus America.” Sales and
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