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Brian Lehrer Commentary: Spitzer Says "Yes"

Sunday, July 30, 2006

This week, Elliot Spitzer and Tom Suozzi held the only scheduled debate in their Democratic primary campaign for governor of New York. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer was one of the questioners in the debate and says it produced a major new campaign promise.

LEHRER: It came during the lightning round, often a more light-hearted part of a debate, where candidates are asked a series of yes or no questions, like “Do you own an iPod?” By the way, Spitzer does own one, Suozzi does not, in case that affects your vote. But this question was serious, as asked by NY1’s Dominic Carter

CARTER: Mr. Suozzi, Can you achieve universal health care in NY if elected governor?

SUOZZI: Can I say I’ll try?

CARTER: Yes or no Mr. Suozzi.

SUOZZI: You want a yes or no answer to that?

CARTER: Yes or no.

SUOZZI: uh…

CARTER: Yes or no.

SPITZER: Do you want a lifeline?

CARTER: yes or no, Mr. Suozzi.

SUOZZI: No.

CARTER: Mr. Spitzer?

SPITZER: Yes

LEHRER: It was just that one-word answer, but there it was – the word was YES. Elliot Spitzer said he can achieve universal health care in New York State if elected governor.

If Spitzer is elected, and tries to keep that promise, he will be in a small vanguard of American politicians, but he won’t be alone.

Massachusetts and Vermont recently became the only two states to enact statewide universal health care laws, and just this week, San Francisco became the first city in America to pass a universal municipal health care bill.

All three programs revolve around subsidies for uninsured individuals to buy private insurance in the marketplace. Massachusetts will require people to buy health insurance if they don’t get it from their employers, and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid.

Spitzer is not saying how he’d cover every New Yorker, but one thing is clear: if he gets the nomination, this issue will spark a debate with his Republican opponent, John Faso. On my weekday call-in show this spring, I asked Faso if the Massachusetts plan could work in New York.

FASO: It can’t work in New York. Here’s just one example. The Massachusetts plan charges employers 295 dollars a year for each employee they don’t cover. Massachusetts has 6 percent uninsured. NY has 17. And that would be on top of the taxes NY already charges employers for health care like eight percent on hospital stays, so the cross-subsidization in NY already far exceeds anything they’re contemplating in Massachusetts.

LEHRER: There, of course, is the catch for Eliot Spitzer. Insurance is expensive and going up. Everyone wants health insurance, no one wants to pay more taxes. Employers bristle at the idea of having to pay the government for workers they don’t choose to insure. And the state already has a structural deficit, a court mandate to pour billions more into the New York City public schools, and trouble keeping employers, especially upstate.

So this is the beginning of this discussion, not the end. But credit Elliot Spitzer for getting beyond “I’ll try” and answering “yes” to the universal health care question. If the federal government continues to punt on such a central issue to our quality of life, more states and cities will have to get creative on their own.

WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. You can hear his call-in show weekdays at 10am.

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