Democrat Barack Obama sharply criticized Republican John McCain's health care proposals Saturday, saying they could force millions of Americans to struggle to buy medical insurance.
Turning to an issue that has faded somewhat during the economic crisis, Obama gave an unusually detailed outline of his own plans in a 40-minute speech to thousands of sun-soaked Virginians at a waterside park in Newport News. He would make coverage more affordable to most Americans, he said, paying for the subsidies largely by canceling the Bush administration's tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 a year.
In a sign that the presidential campaign's final month may have a nastier tone, Obama called McCain's health plan "radical," and Republican officials accused Obama of lying.
Wearing a dark suit and speaking from a TelePrompTer, Obama told the Virginia crowd he would reduce premiums for most people by "as much as $2,500 per family."
He would save money in the heath care system, he said, by holding drug and insurance companies "accountable for the prices they charge and the harm they cause." He also said he would outlaw "insurance company discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions."
Medicare would be allowed to negotiate with drug makers for cheaper prices, he said, and his administration would place greater emphasis on preventing illnesses.
"The time has come," Obama said, "to solve this problem, to cut health care costs for families and businesses, and provide affordable, accessible health insurance for every American."
He devoted at least half his speech to criticizing McCain. The Republican nominee has proposed to tax the health benefits that 156 million people get through the workplace as income. In exchange, McCain would give tax credits to help pay for insurance — $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families, paid directly to the insurer they choose.
The criticisms that Obama made here are echoed by his campaign in four new television ads, four separate mailers targeted to swing state voters, radio commercials and events in every battleground state.
"On health care, John McCain promises a tax credit," an announcer says in one of Obama's new ads, over images of families examining their bills. "But here's what he won't tell you: McCain would make you pay taxes on your health benefits, taxing your health care for the first time ever, raising costs for employers who offer health care so your coverage could be reduced or dropped completely. You won't find one word about it on his Web site."
It's true that McCain doesn't mention that he would tax health benefits on the section of his Web site where he describes his plan. But the Obama ad omits some important context — the tax credit McCain plans to offer would be more generous than the current tax break, at least for most families for the first several years, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center.
Obama said Saturday that under McCain's plan, younger, healthier workers would buy cheaper insurance outside the workplace, leaving an older, sicker pool to drive up the cost of the employer-based system.
"As a result, many employers will drop their health care plans altogether," Obama said. "And study after study has shown, that under the McCain plan, at least 20 million Americans will lose the insurance they rely on from their workplace."
‘Out of touch’
He called McCain's plan "so radical, so out of touch with what you're facing, and so out of line with our basic values."
An assessment by health care economists published last month in the journal Health Affairs projected that McCain's plan would lead 20 million people to lose their employer-sponsored insurance. But it also found that 21 million people would gain coverage through the individual market.
Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant responded: "Barack Obama is lying about John McCain's plan to provide more Americans with more health care choices. Obama's plan only offers more government, while McCain's plan offers more choices."
Obama's speech was more loaded with policy than most, and he seemed to realize that many in the crowd wanted a pep rally more than a detailed examination of health care practices.
"You still with me?" he said halfway through.
Lyndon Johnson was the last Democratic nominee to carry Virginia. But Obama is making an all-out push here, encouraged by growing numbers of Democratic voters in the Washington suburbs and the near-certainty that former Gov. Mark Warner will win the Senate seat being vacated by Republican John Warner.
Newport News, near Norfolk, is home to many military families, and McCain hopes to do well in the area.
Polls show Obama has taken a lead in the national race, fueled by voters' increasing confidence that he would be better equipped to handle the struggling economy. Campaign aides said they long planned to focus on economic issues in these final weeks of the race, but the debate over the government's $700 billion financial bailout focused voters on such concerns more than they could have imagined.
The push on health care is an opportunity to raise the debate on a pocketbook issue that voters rank near the top of their concerns. According to an AP-Yahoo News poll taken last month, 78 percent of voters rate health care as at least a very important issue, which puts it behind the economy in a group of second-tier issues along with Iraq and terrorism.