The 2004 vice presidential nominee is betting that voters will back the idea in exchange for the promise of quality health coverage for all, part of the first major domestic policy initiative from a Democratic White House hopeful.
The tax increase would pay for the plan’s cost of up to $120 billion a year. Edwards’ proposal would require that every business provide health care coverage for employees or help them pay for it and every American has insurance.
Edwards argues that it will be cheaper for families and businesses to have insurance coverage while providing health care to the nation’s 47 million uninsured.
"I think that most Americans now believe that instead of small, incremental change, that we need transformational change that will strengthen this country," Edwards said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Edwards was setting an early marker in what is shaping up to be perhaps the top domestic policy issue in the Democratic race nearly a year before the first votes are cast. Several others are expected to offer competing ideas in the coming months.
"The whole idea for me on these big issues like Iraq and health care, I want to lead, not follow," said Edwards, who also has been pressuring his rivals to pull funding for President Bush’s troop increase. "So I’m not waiting for other people to say where they stand. I’m saying what I believe."
The plan would free up money for health care coverage by abolishing President Bush’s tax cuts for people who make more than $200,000 a year and by having the government collect more back taxes, Edwards said.
His idea immediately opened him to criticism that he’s a tax-and-spender in the mold of Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee who said he would raise taxes. "Edwards’ America Will Pay More Taxes," said a news release from the conservative Club for Growth.
The idea is not new. Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a universal plan in the nation’s most populous state. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, also running for president, signed a law last year requiring universal coverage.
What Edwards is proposing is very different from what he offered four years ago when he was a North Carolina senator and first-time presidential candidate. In the 2004 race, Edwards proposed to cover all children but didn’t have a broader plan for adult uninsured.
Since then, Edwards has had a very personal experience with the health care system as his wife successfully battled breast cancer. Edwards said they had excellent coverage, although the two of them — both former lawyers — struggled to wade through the insurance bureaucracy. He said his position was not changed by that experience but by the people he’s met across the country who are struggling with rising health care costs.
Edwards plan aims to have universal coverage by 2012. A Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, also has said that is his goal, but the Illinois senator has yet to provide more specifics about how he would get there. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton also has said she will have a universal plan.
Edwards plan would first require employers to cover every worker or contribute 6 percent of each worker’s income toward coverage they buy on their own.
It also would provide government-funded insurance to all adults under the poverty line and all children and parents under 250 percent of the poverty line, which is about $50,000 for a family of four. The Edwards campaign is still working on other cost estimates, but says the goal would be to keep the cost to 5 percent to 7 percent for middle-income Americans.
He would try to clamp down on rising costs with tax credits, expanded government programs like Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and changes to insurance laws to require coverage for all regardless of pre-existing conditions or other factors. And he would create nonprofit purchasing pools — across a small area or maybe even several states — so that consumers would have a way to buy an affordable and high quality plan.
Finally, he would require every citizen to get coverage, unless they have financial or religious exemptions. Those who don’t would forfeit their personal exemption on their income tax return.
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