UPDATE 2-Bush offers his first health care proposal

By Patricia Wilson

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush made his first foray into the health care debate Tuesday, proposing a $39.6 billion plan to help 18 million low-income Americans buy insurance.

Although health care is near the top of the election agenda, the Texas governor had left the field open to his Democratic rival Al Gore, who has offered a $146 billion, 10-year program including coverage for every child by 2005.

Bush's proposals were part of a ``New Prosperity Initiative,'' announced at the West Side Ecumenical Ministry in Cleveland and aimed at making poverty ``a stage, not a fate'' by providing health coverage, housing and savings incentives.

``We will not nationalize our health care system, we will promote individual choice,'' Bush said. ``But make no mistake, in my administration, low-income Americans will have access to high quality health care.''

Bush's announcement coincided with new reports on the state of public health in Texas, which has one of the nation's worst records. More than a quarter of Texans had no health insurance and the state ranked near the top in rates of AIDS, diabetes, tuberculosis and teenage pregnancy, the New York Times said.

Campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker called the article ''misleading and inaccurate'' and said under Bush ``Texas dramatically increased spending on health care programs, increased access to health care and health insurance, enacted nationally recognized patient protections, and committed more than $1.5 billion to address long-term health care needs.''


An estimated 44 million Americans lack health insurance and the Bush five-year plan was designed to help low and moderate income earners who slip through the cracks between government programs and employer-provided insurance, aides said.

In a speech sprinkled with quotes from Booker T. Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Bush warned Americans against becoming ``a winner-take-all society.''

``The same economy that is a miracle for millions of Americans is a mystery for millions as well ... our nation must close the gap of hope,'' he said.

Bush's plan would provide a tax credit of up to $2,000 per family or $1,000 per individual to cover 90 percent of the cost of health insurance and would decrease as income increases. The full credit would be available to families making $30,000 or less and individuals earning $15,000 or less.

He would build flexibility into the State Children's Health Insurance Program, allowing leeway to reach out to eligible people, and encourage affordable small business health plans.

A spokesman for Vice President Gore called the proposals ''limited'' and said Bush was trying to change the subject.

``It's obvious these issues are new to him,'' Doug Hattaway said. ``He hasn't done anything to improve health care in Texas, why should anyone believe he'll actually do anything now?''

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters the initiative illustrated the Texan's ``compassionate conservatism'' and showed ``the governor is a different kind of Republican.''


Since Bush wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination a month ago with the help of the party's more conservative wing, he has been inching back toward the political center in order to attract the independent voters he will need to win the White House on Nov. 7.

The process will continue in coming weeks as Bush focuses on education, seniors, health care and reforming government. ``This will be a policy oriented spring,'' Fleischer said.

Other components of Bush's plan to ``open the gates of opportunity'' include expanding home ownership by changing a federal rental voucher program to allow recipients to use up to a year's worth to finance a home and setting up a fund to provide $1 billion in matching grants to lenders over five years to help 650,000 families become homeowners.

He also would support creating more than one million Individual Development Accounts by providing a $1 billion tax credit over five years to banks matching the savings of low-income earners up to $300 annually. They could withdraw it to buy a first home, start a business or pay for education.

``Instead of helping people cope with their need, we will help them to move beyond it,'' Bush said. ``America has been successful because poverty has been a stage, not a fate.''

16:56 04-11-00

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