Steven Brostoff

NU Online Service, October 29–Washington

Health care and prescription drugs will be major issues in the next Congress, but less important than the overall economy and national security, says a survey of association executives and lobbyists.

In a survey commissioned by the Health Insurance Association of America, Washington, 28% of so-called “Washington insiders” identify “health care and prescription drugs” as a priority item of the President and Congress.

This item ranks significantly above “taxes and spending,” which comes in at 13%, and “education,” which was cited by 12%.

However, it falls far below “the economy and jobs,” which comes in at 74%, and “terrorism and national security,” which is cited by 58%.

Still, nearly 75% of those surveyed cite rising health care costs as an “important” concern for voters in the Nov. 5 election.

“The beginning of the 2004 presidential election jockeying, combined with double-digit increases in health care spending and the resulting increase in the number of uninsured Americans, will thrust health care issues into the public spotlight in the months ahead,” HIAA President Donald Young said at a press briefing.

The survey was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, Alexandria, Va. Bill McInturff, a partner with the firm, said that several specific health care issues are seen as likely to receive legislative attention.

These include adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, expanding children’s health insurance programs, passing a tax incentive for long term care insurance, passing a patient’s bill of rights that does not include the right to sue health plans, mental health parity and capping medical malpractice awards.

However, McInturff said, the Washington insiders responding to the survey indicate skepticism that any of these legislative issues will become law.

“It appears that opinion leaders believe that more legislative stalemates will be the rule of the day in the next two years,” he said.

Perhaps surprisingly, McInturff said, Republicans give a couple of key health care issues a higher chance of passing Congress than do Democrats.

He said that 49% of the Republicans responding to the survey cite a Medicare prescription drugs benefit as likely to pass, compared with only 39% of Democrats.

As for expansion of children’s health insurance programs, 35% of Republicans see that as likely to pass Congress, compared with 26% of Democrats.

More generally, with a week to go before the election, the Washington insiders expect the Republicans to maintain control of the House, but they see the Senate as a toss-up, McInturff said.

Looking ahead to the 2004 presidential campaign, he said, there is no strong consensus as to who is the front runner to be the Democratic Party candidate against President George Bush.

Former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., were each cited by 16% of the respondents as the likely nominee.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was named by 14% of respondents.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., was cited by 9%, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., by 8%, Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., by 4%, and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey by only 1%.