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Commentary: Health-care push has Wisconsin roots

Matt Pommer

The president of the United States made it clear what he saw as a deepening health crisis.

“We face a massive crisis in this area,” the president told reporters. “Unless action is taken within the next two or three years … we will have a breakdown in our medical system.”

The latest statistics show health insurance costs are soaring. The largest group insurance program is the one covering Wisconsin state employees, their families and many retirees.

In 2010 the cost for family coverage will be more than $15,600 in the Dane County area, more than $19,200 in the Milwaukee metropolitan area and more than $20,000 per family in the northeastern part of the state.

The state employee program provides some coverage of dental procedures, a fast growing cost of medical care. A companion program for many local government employees has no dental section and in 2010 will cost about $2,000 less per family than the state employee program, according to state data.

Federal statistics show the average family health insurance cost has grown from $5,800 to $13,300 in the past 10 years. There is little sign of any compromise in Washington as the Congress struggles with health insurance and medical cost questions. That’s not new.

The presidential warning cited at the top of this column was made by Richard M. Nixon in July of 1969. Chances for compromise vanished as Nixon’s presidency unraveled with Watergate.

Health historians suggest the Democratic majorities in Congress thought they could wait out Nixon and Gerald Ford and get a better program after the 1976 election. Alas, Jimmy Carter had little interest in pushing the idea.

The idea of national health insurance in America first was raised by the Progressive movement, with its deep roots in Wisconsin, in the early 20th century.

In 1912 the progressive movement selected Teddy Roosevelt, to seek the presidency. As early as 1902 Republican Roosevelt, then president, was talking about health insurance. But his call was for states to organize the health insurance for their citizens.

The Progressive era talk of health insurance died after World War I as an anti-communist fervor swept America. Wisconsin was to experience more anti-communism talk in the 1950s led by U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy.

The talk has changed some. Now critics say reform could lead to socialism.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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