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McCain’s middle-class squeeze

At a time when Americans feel the pain of the middle-class squeeze more acutely than they do the fear of terrorism, John McCain is unfamiliar with, and even unconcerned about, those economic struggles. His healthcare plan compounds the problem, creating a new vise that will crush middle-class families.

By adopting President Bush’s plan, Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) offers incontrovertible evidence that he represents a third Bush term here at home, as well as in Iraq.

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More important, rather than relieving the burden weighing down middle-class Americans, the McCain-Bush plan squeezes them further.

McCain’s “solution” to the problem of rising healthcare costs is for Americans to pay even more and get less.

By ending employer-sponsored health insurance and replacing it with an individual market in which everyone buys their own policy, McCain’s plan will drive up costs for families. Ending employer-sponsored coverage is itself playing with fire. According to the Field Poll, just 20 percent of Californians would prefer to obtain their coverage themselves, with the rest preferring it come through employers (38 percent) or government (31 percent).

Apparently, McCain failed to learn from earlier battles that most people like their own current healthcare arrangements and resist changing them. Asking up to two-thirds of the American public to relinquish health insurance they like, provided through their employer, puts the McCain-Bush plan on life support.

However, the real squeeze comes when McCain asks employers to stop paying $12,000 a year for family insurance, while giving employees a $5,000 tax credit to pay for their own. McCain has just doubled the amount the average family pays for healthcare, squeezing them even further.

People have already spoken on the concept: an Employee Benefit Research Institute survey found only 6 percent willing to trade their employer-sponsored health insurance for a $10,000 check — worth even more than McCain’s tax credit.

McCain, of course, argues that the miracle of the market will reduce the price of health insurance policies. Those consumer savings are extremely unlikely to materialize in any event, but how exactly could McCain expect health insurance companies to cut their prices by 60 percent? By cutting back on what is covered. McCain is recreating the days when insurance companies insisted on drive-by deliveries and drive-by mastectomies; he will have insurance company bureaucrats, not doctors, determine which treatments and which tests are covered.

Of course, McCain offers the option of keeping your employer-sponsored coverage — in the unlikely event your employer continues to offer it — but he exacts a price, tightening the vise again. McCain will hit those who keep their employer-provided policy with a completely new tax on the value of those benefits — adding thousands of dollars to families’ tax bills.

Only after announcing his plan for the second time did McCain recognize another gaping hole: He will not provide coverage for those, like him, with pre-existing conditions. McCain’s solution — “We’ll figure something out with the states,” even though no state has yet figured out how to accomplish the goal. McCain to cancer patients: “Drop dead while we figure out a solution to the problem I want to create.”

Finally, McCain’s plan ignores the altered public opinion landscape. I used to argue what McCain now bellows:

“It’s about cost, not the uninsured.” However, several recent polls have found more voters saying they care more about covering the uninsured than about costs. While those responses may not reflect Americans’ true relative concerns on these issues, it is clear that McCain’s disdain for covering the uninsured is shared by very few.

Rather than relieving the burden gripping the middle class, McCain’s radical healthcare plan will increase costs, increase taxes, reduce coverage and mean no coverage at all for tens of millions — tightening the vise already squeezing the middle class.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.