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CongressNow: Obama’s Health Plan Borrows Clinton’s Ideas

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) won’t be moving into the White House in 2009, but her ideas for overhauling the nation’s health care system might well find residence in a Barack Obama administration.

Since the early 1990s, Clinton has been at the forefront of Democratic efforts to expand health care coverage, including serving as the architect of the Clinton administration’s failed universal health care initiative. In the Senate, Clinton has repeatedly been involved with efforts to expand health care coverage for children. And a central tenant of her presidential campaign was providing health care for all Americans.

Clinton is almost certain to continue her call for universal health care coverage when she addresses the Democratic convention.

Moreover, Clinton’s goal is now part of the Democratic Party platform, which states, “Democrats are united around a commitment that every American man, woman, and child be guaranteed to have affordable, comprehensive health care.”

Exactly how that goal will be met is unclear. “While there are different approaches within the Democratic Party about how best to achieve the commitment of covering every American — with everyone in and no one left out — we stand united to achieve this fundamental objective through the legislative process,” the platform added.

Michael Yaki, the Democratic National Committee’s platform director, said the Clinton campaign was consulted in developing the party platform on health care. As part of those negotiations, Yaki said, the DNC decided to go with more explicit language — adding the term “guarantee” — to provide more assurance that universal health care coverage is the party’s ultimate goal.

While Obama and Clinton sparred over their health plans during the primary season, most experts say there were more similarities than differences between their proposals. An Obama campaign official acknowledged that Clinton’s push for health care had the effect of “sharpening the thoughts” of the Obama campaign, particularly on the need to mandate some coverage.

One example of Clinton’s influence was Obama’s endorsement of the small-business health tax credit, according to Kenneth Thorpe, chairman of the Emory University Department of Health Policy and Management. Former Clinton staffers pushed Obama’s camp to adopt this provision, which would provide small businesses with a refundable tax credit of up to 50 percent on premiums paid by small businesses on behalf of their employees, Thorpe said.

Obama however, is not expected to fully adopt Clinton’s call for universal coverage — at least initially. Instead, Obama will push a federal effort that would guarantee coverage for all children by targeting those not covered by Medicaid or other federal health insurance programs.

Regardless of who wins in November, Clinton will have a lead role in shaping the health care debate on Capitol Hill. If Obama wins, she could emerge as crucial ally to pass health legislation, while if GOP presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wins, she could become the chief critic of his health care proposals that focus on tax credits and health care accounts to offer limited expanded coverage.

Already Clinton is considered the most prominent Senator on health care issues other than Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “People will look to her on this issue, there’s no doubt,” Thorpe said.

With Kennedy suffering from a brain tumor, Clinton could play an even larger role on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, which Kennedy chairs and she serves on.

Some Republicans suggest Clinton’s push for universal health care in the Senate is a way for her to “save face” over her failed presidential campaign. If Obama does not win the White House, she could use the issue as a launching pad for another run at the Oval Office in 2012, political observers say.

A former Bush White House aide, however, was skeptical about how much Clinton would really accomplish, arguing that the Senator had done very little on universal health care during her first two terms in the Senate.

“If those issues are so important, where has she been for the past eight years?” the former aide said. Also, Clinton remains a lightning rod for conservatives, the GOP official noted.

A potentially more important factor is whether Democrats capture 60 Senate seats this fall, which would allow them to defeat Republican filibusters and could pave the way for a flood of health care legislation.

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