Health looms large in political dialogue

From local governments to the White House race, healthcare is once again on all politicians' lips

From local governments to the White House race, healthcare is once again on all politicians' lips

Healthcare, it seems, is in vogue again as a political theme. The last time this was the case was way back in 1994, when then-first lady Hillary Clinton was recovering from the collapse of her comprehensive healthcare package. Sixteen years later and Sen. Clinton (D-NY) is still involved, albeit in circumstances far different than that last go-round.

This time there may be the political will to get something done, and, given the communications ramping up on both sides of the aisle, it stands to be among the most important domestic issues discussed during the presidential campaign.

Nine out of ten Americans said they want healthcare reform in a recent UPI/Zogby poll, though they were divided over the details. And a majority of respondents in a New York Times/CBS poll said that the government should guarantee health insurance to every American. They were even willing to pay up to $500 in extra taxes each year to see it happen.

Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), and John Edwards - the three major Democratic candidates for President - have already proposed some form of universal healthcare, though details have been scarce. Republicans, too, are talking healthcare, though not yet with the same urgency as the opposition. But Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has promised to insure the 11 million uninsured children in this country should he be elected.

Moderate proposals reaching across the political spectrum, and incorporating both government and private-sector reform, have been mentioned with increasing regularity. And most surprisingly, the term "universal healthcare" has lost the negative connotation that dogged it for much of the past three decades.

"I always thought the term got a bad rap," says Anne Woodbury, SVP of Fleishman-Hillard's Health Solutions Navigator business. "It has lost its 'big bureaucracy, top-down' connotation."

Frustrated that the federal government won't act, states have increasingly been upping the ante, most notably a recent proposal in California and one already enacted in Massachusetts (a program passed under then-Gov. Mitt Romney, who is now a Republican candidate for the White House). Most strikingly, healthcare for all is no
longer a single party's creed.

"It's a kitchen-table issue that politicians are tapping into right now and action in the states is creating momentum for a national debate," says Larry Levitt, VP for the Kaiser Family Health Foundation. "You had Romney successfully pass a plan and [Gov.] Schwarzenegger (R-CA) making [it a] high priority. People still trust Democrats more on the issue, but to the extent Republican candidates begin to talk about it, the gap could certainly narrow."

"The cost of healthcare is what's driving things," agrees Bonnie Muheim, SVP at Spectrum Science Communications. "It's safe to say that healthcare will be right at the top of the policy agenda. The movement is afoot to get the uninsured covered. With regard to healthcare reform, we're seeing a much more bipartisan approach."

Muheim's firm has exhibited that very bipartisan approach. In 2005, it hosted a series of events with former Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) called "Ceasefire on Health Care." The events brought together prominent policy-makers from both sides of the debate - one featured Clinton and former House speaker Newt Gingrich - to discuss areas of healthcare reform in which the two sides could concur.

Woodbury agrees that the time is ripe for politicians to find common ground on the issue, and communicate it. "I think you see a lot more strange bedfellows than you did previously," she says, pointing to the alliance of members of Congress who have backed a renewal of the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program.

Levitt says he expects speaking to this issue to increase as campaigns hit full stride. With Democrats no longer able to count on a huge advantage when it comes to the issue, and voters ready for reform, the domestic policy debate is likely to be dominated by it. And whoever communicates the best plan might just win the White House.

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