Democratic hopefuls unite for universal health care

John McCormick
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Former Sen. John Edwards was on the stage, but most of the cameras were focused to his right, where his wife, Elizabeth, sat as a poignant reminder of the importance of and disparities in America's health-care system.

Just days after the couple announced that her breast cancer had returned in a metastasized and incurable form, they were here Saturday for a Democratic presidential forum on health care, a setting where the candidates uniformly pledged ambitious plans for universal health care.

Edwards of North Carolina said one of the key reasons he is running again for president is his wife's struggle with cancer, a battle that has been fought with the best tools available and the kind of care many do not have.

"It's not right that a woman has to go through - or anyone has to go through - this kind of struggle and have to worry about the medicine they need, the health care that they need," he said. "No American should have to worry about that."

The event attracted seven Democratic candidates and was sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Service Employees International Union, a powerful national labor group with nearly 2 million members that may endorse one of the candidates later this year.

The sponsors want health-care reform to be a leading issue in the election.

"We have high hopes that what happens in Las Vegas will actually leave Las Vegas and set the tone for the entire presidential campaign," said John Podesta, leader of the Center for American Progress.

With an estimated 45 million Americans - about 15 percent of the population - without health insurance, the Democrats all showed passion for universal care. But they varied on the details, including how they would pay for it and how long it would take to create.

Speaking to about 1,000 mostly union members at the University of Nevada, Edwards knocked down any suggestions that he would get out of the race because of his wife's recent diagnosis, saying he was "definitely in the race for the duration."

As he talked about the importance of an honest campaign discussion on health care, his wife wiped a tear from her eye. She laughed minutes later at one of his applause lines.

Edwards reaffirmed his belief that taxes will need to be raised to fund universal coverage. "I do not believe you can have universal health care without finding additional revenue," he said.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said he also would consider raising taxes to pay for health care.

"I will do whatever it takes," he said. "I have not foreclosed the possibility that we might need additional money to achieve my goal."

In January, Obama pledged to work to provide health-care coverage for every American if he is elected. But he has yet to provide a detailed plan, and a questioner from the audience said she could find few details about his proposal on his Web site.

"Our campaign is a little over 8 weeks old, so we will be putting a very detailed plan on our Web site," Obama responded, adding that he planned to provide details "over the next couple of months."

Obama said there was no uncertainty in his view that all Americans should have health care. "My commitment is to make sure we have universal health care for all Americans by the end of my first term as president," he said.

Michelle Obama, who works for the University of Chicago Hospitals, sat through most of the presentations before and after her husband's appearance. She frequently applauded - and later kissed - her husband's chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Clinton, who pushed a failed health-care plan during her husband's first term as president, said she has the battle wounds to prove just how hard it will be to pass comprehensive health-care legislation.

"I feel a little like this is deja vu all over again," she said. "I'm proud that we tried. We may not have succeeded, but we set the groundwork in place so now people are saying, `Boy I wish we had done it back then.'"

Clinton downplayed the need to raise taxes to finance universal care. "I don't think we should start from the position . . . of putting more money into a system that is broken," she said.

The Democratic front-runner also said she expects it could take up to eight years to establish the system she envisions. "This will be a series of steps," she said. "What we have to do is persuade the country."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would place greater emphasis on preventive health care and would push for a nationwide workplace smoking ban similar to legislation he signed in his home state.

Also appearing at the forum were Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.

The forum's sponsors commissioned a poll of likely primary and caucus voters in the four lead-off states for the nomination that indicates strong support for health care reform.

The mid-March sampling of more than 1,600 likely Republican and Democratic voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina shows that more than four-fifths agree with the statement, "Everyone has a right to quality, affordable health care coverage."

A majority also said that health care will be one of the most important issues in their decision-making. At this point, polled Democratic primary voters in the early states believe Clinton would be the best president, followed distantly by Edwards and Obama.

"People think it is time for sweeping health-care reform," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who ran the poll.

Lake said polling over the last five years indicates a growing desire among voters to "fundamentally overhaul" the health-care system, something she said even 71 percent of typically more cautious Republican primary voters backed in her poll.





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