Since 1919, the bishops of the U.S. have maintained that affordable health care should be within the reach of every person in the United States.
It has been more than four decades since John XXIII identified health care as a basic right of all people in his last encyclical letter, Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth). Unfortunately, that vision remains unfulfilled in the world's most affluent society in 2005.
A serious effort
Such visions are usually realized one step at a time. Recently in the State Capitol, a small bi-partisan effort has begun to provide health coverage to all those who live in Wisconsin. Early reaction to the plan has ranged from cautious to hostile. But the plan is a serious effort to address a complex problem and it warrants a thoughtful discussion in the public square.
The plan, called the Wisconsin Health Plan, is a blend of government involvement and market forces and it would offer universal coverage for all state residents.
Assessment on wages
The most controversial part of the plan is an assessment on all wages paid to employees. The base level assessment is eight percent of the first $100,000 in wages. The assessment increases to nine percent on the second $100,000, to 10 percent on the third $100,000, and is capped at 12 percent of wages over $400,000.
This assessment applies to all employers. Because it does so, it assures that participation and coverage will be truly universal.
The money raised by this assessment would fund a package of benefits that is fairly comprehensive in scope and better than most of us currently enjoy. Individuals would be able to choose their own providers.
The assessment might sound frightening at first blush. But employers in Wisconsin spend an average of 15 percent of their payroll costs on health care premiums for their employees.
The fact that the plan's assessment is well below that figure may be one reason why the Wisconsin Independent Businesses suggested the plan deserves study and the Wisconsin Manufacturer's and Commerce, the state's largest business lobby, was also measured in its reaction.
As noted earlier, the plan also has bi-partisan backing. Rep. Curt Gielow, a Republican from Mequon and chair of a special committee to reform the state's Medicaid program, is a co-author of the plan. The other co-sponsor is Milwaukee Democrat Jon Richards, who is the assistant leader of his party in the state Assembly.
The bi-partisanship goes further. Two of the key thinkers behind the plan are David Reimer, a former budget director for Governor Doyle, and Joe Leean, a former GOP state senator who was co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance before serving for several years as Secretary of Health and Family Services in Governor Tommy Thompson's cabinet.
A thoughtful proposal
The authors concede the plan is not perfect, but they have made a thoughtful proposal to address one of the most important and vexing social problems before us.
At a time when vitriol and animosity between the parties poisons so much in our civic culture, these thoughtful citizens have shed ideology to offer an idea that might help move us closer to reaching a genuine social good.
For this they deserve both our thanks and a thoughtful response in the months ahead.
John Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.
Diocese of Madison, The Catholic Herald
Offices: Bishop O'Connor Catholic Pastoral Center, 702 S. High Point Road, Madison
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