NASHUA, N.H. — Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson said Tuesday he is warming to the idea of a single-payer health care system but for now prefers getting tough on insurance companies to getting rid of them.
Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, has proposed a universal health care plan that includes making the health plan offered to Congress available to the public and small businesses, reducing the eligibility age of Medicare to 55, expanding programs for the poor and children and providing tax breaks for those who pay for their own coverage.
Speaking at Rivier College, which offers nursing degrees, he said he isn't completely opposed to the kind of government-run, single-payer system used in Canada and many European countries, but prefers to give consumers a choice.
"I'm starting to warm up to it a little bit because I get very frustrated with insurance companies. ... They tick me off, and I wish I could say, 'You're out of this business,'" he said. "The problem with that is, fundamentally, I believe every American deserves choice."
Richardson said he'd rather control the insurance companies and force them to do the right thing. Under his plan, insurers that want to participate in the federal plan would be required to put 85 percent of their premiums toward direct care. He also said he worries that a single-payer system would create an overwhelmingly complex bureaucracy.
"I hate bureaucracy," he said.
"If you hate bureaucracy, how can you like HMOs and insurance companies?" Richard Ingram called out from the audience.
"That's called a left hook," Richardson joked.
Ingram, of Hudson, told Richardson that he has seen how frustrating, complex and varied health insurance plans can be both from his own experience with colon cancer and from running a health clinic for people with little or no insurance.
"If you asked every single person in this room the specifics of their health coverage probably not one could tell you the specifics of what their policy covers and doesn't cover," he said. "I think what we need is one plan that covers what people need, and that's it. Otherwise you're going to end up with just a different mess than what you've got now."
Other audience members pushed Richardson to mandate coverage of mental health care, something he said his plan would accomplish.
Richardson, a former congressman, U.N. ambassador and energy secretary, was wrapping up a two-day trip to New Hampshire just as a new poll showed him gaining support. According to the CNN/WMUR-TV poll, Richardson's support has doubled to 12 percent since September, putting him about even with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in third place. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, followed by Sen. Barack Obama.
"We're underdogs, but we're moving up," Richardson said.
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