COX Newspapers Washington Bureau

Q&A With John Edwards On Health Care

Cox News Service
Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, unveiling his health care plan Monday, said he will "tell people the truth" that tax increases for some will be necessary to finance his proposal. In an interview, he also said he is a "proven vote-getter" in his native South, despite failing to carry his home state of North Carolina as the Democratic Party's 2004 vice presidential nominee.

Edwards' plan would require employers to cover every worker or contribute 6 percent of each worker's income toward coverage the workers could buy on their own. It would also provide government-funded insurance to all adults under the poverty line and all children and parents under 250 percent of the poverty line, or about $50,000 for a family of four.

The plan, the first to be proposed in detail by a candidate for the 2008 Democratic nomination, would cost about $120 billion a year, largely financed by ending President Bush's tax cuts for people who make more than $200,000 a year.

Here are excerpts of the interview with Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina:

Q. What are you trying to do by bringing your health care plan out on the same day as President Bush's budget and the Senate getting ready for its debate on the war in Iraq?

A. Lead. I'm not interested in following. I've made very clear what my position is on Iraq, which is a very critical issue for the country and the world. But two other enormous issues are health care and energy, and I'm moving forward. I'm not waiting for other people.

Q. In your work at your poverty center in North Carolina, how much have you seen health care contribute to poverty?

A. It's a major contributor. According to the federal government's definition, we have 37 million people who live in poverty, 47 million people who don't have health care, and there's a huge overlap between those two populations. And about half the bankruptcies that occur each year - and we're having record bankruptcies - are driven by medical expenses. So, it's one of the critical components in addressing poverty.

Sometimes, people think of universal health care as primarily about the poor. I think it's about literally the entire American population, because middle class families are really crunched on health care costs. It's one of the things that makes it so hard for them to have any flexibility in changing jobs, in being able to pay expenses, those sorts of things.

Q. So you would agree with those who say health care is also an economic issue?

A. Totally. It's very hard for America to compete as a member of the industrialized world when our health care costs are so high and it puts such an enormous burden on our businesses. That's one of the reasons why we need more efficient, low cost health care.

Q. How do you explain this to voters?

A. What voters want to know is - how does it affect me? What would it do for me or to me and my family? And what they need to know is, first, if you don't have health care coverage, you're going to have health insurance and, second, if you have health insurance and you like what you have, you can keep it. If you want a better alternative, those alternatives will be available to you. If you're worried about moving from one job to another because of your health needs, this will allow you to buy coverage at a very competitive low cost rate. And if you can't afford it and you're between jobs, we help you pay for it. The whole system will bring down overall costs.

Q. You pay for this with tax increases or repealing the tax cuts that occurred during the Bush administration.

A. For people making over $200,000 a year.

Q. But are you ready for the campaign ads that morph you into (1984 Democratic presidential nominee) Walter Mondale, for example, saying you're going to raise their taxes?

A. I'm going to tell people the truth. If you earn less than $200,000 a year, your taxes will not go up and health care coverage will be affordable. If you earn more than $200,000 a year, your taxes are going up. But it's for a good cause, and it matters for America to be competitive and strong over the long term. When I announced for president, I said it's time to call on Americans to be patriotic about things other than war and to take responsibility for our own country. And that's part of what of this - this health care plan is based on the concept of shared responsibility.

Q. You say we need this now, but your plan won't be in effect until 2012. Why not now?

A. I'm not president now (laughs).

Q. But that's a pretty long time for some people to wait.

A. It is, but to start in January 2009, there is no health care plan that doesn't take at least a couple of years to phase in. People have to make a transition in an orderly way. But we would immediately, immediately start covering people. But it takes a while to pick them up. We'll pick people up when they go to the hospital for emergency care. We'll pick them up when they file a tax return, when they take their kids to school. The reality is it will take a little bit of time.

Q. You've said that business has a responsibility for their employees' health care. When you practiced law, did your law firm provide health care insurance to its employees?

A. We did.

Q. What is the advantage to small businesses?

A. They're right at the heart of why this plan will work. They'll be able to get competitive rates with what these mammoth businesses can do. And we're mandating reductions in administration costs, which will lower overall costs.

Q. What about coverage of illegal immigrants?

A. We will keep the public safety net in place - public hospitals, health care clinics, etc., because there are always going to be people falling through the cracks. But this has to be married up to what I think should be done about the issue of illegal immigrants to begin with. We want to change the immigration system, so people can get on the path to citizenship. They would be covered. If they're here, working on a guest card, they're covered. As of now, we're not covering one of those criteria. But the safety net would be there.

Q. A political question, please. How do you convince Democrats you can win in the South, given what happened in 2004 when you didn't even carry your home state of North Carolina as John Kerry's running vice presidential running mate?

A. Because the only time I've been on a ballot in North Carolina, at the top of the ticket (as a nominee for the U.S. Senate in 1998), I won. I think that when I'm the candidate, I'm a proven vote getter.