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POLITICS-US: Campaigns Spar Over Broken Health System

Bankole Thompson

DETROIT, Michigan, Oct 23 2008 (IPS) - For a man who said he watched his mother battle with insurance companies while dying of cancer in a hospital bed, and whose 85-year-old grandmother is said to be in serious condition, healthcare for all citizens has become a defining issue in the historic campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama.

Obama suspended his campaign for two days Thursday and Friday to attend to his sick grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, at his birthplace in Hawaii, after she reportedly fell and broke her hip.

At the second presidential debate, Obama said healthcare should be a right for all citizens – referring to the estimated 47 million people in this country without health insurance – while Republican presidential nominee John McCain said it’s more a responsibility for individuals and employers.

In a CNN poll taken earlier this month, 57 percent of respondents said they believed Obama would do a better job on health care issues, while just 37 percent had confidence in McCain.

“To be honest with you, I can’t wait for Obama to become president because not only is his health plan a good one, but the fact that he’s going to lower rates by 2,500 dollars per person, that’s huge for someone like me who is self-employed,” said Ann Marie Stephens, a California real estate broker.

“I am looking forward to him implementing his healthcare plan so that insurance is more affordable. The national housing market is in crisis and in California we are in a very challenged and depressed market,” she said.

Regardless of their political affiliation, most citizens are clearly dissatisfied with the status quo. Another CBS News/New York Times poll taken in September found that 50 percent said the current system required “fundamental changes”, while 35 percent said it should be “completely rebuilt”. Only 14 percent opted for “minor changes”.

During a recent conference call with reporters around the country, Obama said his healthcare plan would cost about 65 billion dollars and would be paid for by rolling back the tax cuts of President George W. Bush.

“We would be able to pay for our healthcare plan as well as eliminating programmes like the Medicare Advantage programme – which basically is just a subsidy of the insurance companies under the Medicare plan,” Obama said. “It was pushed through by George Bush and it hasn’t saved any money or improved quality of care. So we’re going to change that.”

Alonzo Harris, a diabetic who worked for the City of Detroit Department of Public Lighting from 1996-2006 before leaving because of the severity of his illness, doesn’t have health insurance now.

Harris that said while working for Detroit, he was paying 250 dollars per month out of his paycheque for Blue Care Network insurance instead of opting for the city’s health plan which would have lowered his monthly premiums – but the plan does not give employees the option of choosing their own doctors.

“After I left the city to become a tax accountant I was receiving a COBRA plan [partial coverage] from the city and my monthly premium increased from 250 to 400 dollars a month,” Harris told IPS. “The city covered me for 18 months as long as I paid my share.”

With no regular stream of income, Harris said he stopped paying the premium and went without coverage.

“When I shopped around, I found out that it would cost me about 600-700 dollars a month to have my own insurance,” Harris said. “My business is not making that money and I can’t have insurance. I’m 56 years old and I hope nothing catastrophic happens to me.”

Under the McCain plan, employees will receive a 5,000-dollar tax credit and insurance companies are not mandated to cover preexisting conditions, unlike Obama’s plan. McCain has argued that it is better for individuals to decide their own health care instead of the government-driven plan his opponent is pushing.

But Harris doesn’t buy the McCain plan, which he called “help for the insurance industry to make a steady flow of money.”

“If you are within a 25 percent tax bracket as a single person your taxes will increase with McCain’s plan. If the cost of your health insurance is above the 5,000-dollar tax credit, not only would you pay the difference but you also pay taxes on it,” Harris explained. “You will be taxed for money you did not receive and that will decrease your net pay check every two weeks and you end up with less purchasing power. Any medical benefit becomes a taxable income.”

Harris added, “This is a typical Republican ploy. They very seldom help the little people.”

Obama’s plan, he noted, would help a lot of people who are self-employed and making less in the workplace.

However, Iowa-based health expert Shanita Eze, whose service in the health industry covered stints in Britain as a medical researcher, said prevention should be emphasised, a point Obama makes on the campaign trail.

“We have to stop the fire brigade approach to healthcare,” Eze said. “If we have to wait until people get to a critical situation, it becomes expensive to take care of them.”

Obama told reporters on the conference call that his administration will provide incentives to make sure that prevention is covered.

“It’s one of the biggest problems in our healthcare system,” Obama said. “People go to the ER [Emergency Room] for treatable illnesses, or they put off visiting their doctor if they do have a healthcare plan because they can’t afford co-pays and deductibles.”

The Democratic nominee said he wants to “make it free to go get screenings from your doctor.”

Eze agreed that it is high time for a universal healthcare plan.

“You want to bail out the banks [but] you cannot bail out sick people? It doesn’t make sense,” she said.

She cited the homeless, who lack healthcare because “if you don’t have an address you cannot fill out an application for Medicaid. You have to have a physical address. That shows us that we have many people who are falling through the cracks.”

Stephens, the California real estate broker, said McCain’s plan defeats the purpose.

“You are giving me a credit I am going to be taxed on? What I need is [for] my rates to be lowered,” She said. “What is the point of having insurance? They want your money but they don’t want to cover you.”

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