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Kennedy to propose universal health care

$100b initiative modeled on plan for federal workers

In a speech to health care advocates today, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts plans to propose legislation to provide health insurance to all Americans at a federal price tag of $100 billion a year.

The plan would mandate that large employers cover their workers and would establish a national insurance plan for other Americans modeled on the plan that covers federal employees. Although similar initiatives have been proposed before, Kennedy's plan would attempt to make the mandate more palatable to employers by capping their contributions at 12 percent of payroll costs, up slightly from the current median expenses of 11 percent.

Kennedy's staff said the federal cost would be completely offset over a decade by savings initiatives mandated in the bill, such as expanding disease prevention programs, streamlining administration in hospitals and health plans, importing prescription drugs from Canada and European Union nations, and authorizing the federal Medicare program to bargain with drug companies for discounts.

"We have it in our power to make the fundamental human right to health care a reality for all Americans," Kennedy says in a draft of the speech released last night that criticizes President Bush's own health care plans, including some outlined Tuesday in his State of the Union address. "I say let's get it done -- if not this year, then next year with a new Congress and a new administration elected with a mandate to get it done."

More than 44 million Americans have no health insurance, but previous proposals to provide universal coverage have fallen flat. Even strong advocates said the new plan would likely face the same fate this year.

"It's clearly designed to build on what works today, rather than creating new bureaucracies or organizational structures," said Ronald Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a national advocacy group. "It's a thoughtful proposal that could work. But I think President Bush's record makes clear that building on employer-provided coverage and providing meaningful subsidies is not something he's likely to support."

Under the proposal, which Kennedy said he will call the Health Security and Affordability Act, large employers and prosperous small employers would be required to pay 75 percent of the cost of employees' health insurance. Other workers and individuals not covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or programs for children could join a National Health Benefits Program with subsidized premiums modeled on the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program.

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