You Asked For It Issue That Kept Wofford Healthy

Posted: November 12, 1991

HARRISBURG — During Harris Wofford's 4 1/2 years as state labor secretary, he saw health care costs at the root of most labor disputes. What he didn't see was health care as his ticket to the U.S. Senate.

Most post-election noodlers and many pre-election polls say Wofford's call for national health insurance is the main reason he won.

It's an issue whose potency surprised observers and put Republicans on their heels.

It seemed to come from nowhere.

When Wofford was named to succeed the late John Heinz on May 8, he never mentioned health care in his speech thanking Gov. Casey.

When he accepted the Democratic nomination for the post on June 1, he still didn't mention it. He said he'd run a campaign on "jobs and the economy."

And when Wofford gave a far-ranging, hour-long interview in August, he said not one word about health insurance.

But on Sept. 9, there it was. Wofford's first TV campaign ad said criminals have a right to a lawyer but "millions of Americans aren't able to see a doctor . . . That's why I'm fighting for national health insurance."

Wofford's pollster, Dave Petts, found the issue was hot across Pennsylvania. Maybe pols weren't talking about it, but people were. And even when told the arguments against national health insurance - higher taxes, not being able to choose a doctor, a new government bureaucracy - they still wanted it.

"It was off the chart," said Wofford campaign manager Paul Begala.

Also, it had a life of its own, and carried a sort of political inoculation.

When Thornburgh fought back, correctly saying Wofford had no specific plan for health insurance, it didn't seem to matter. When Thornburgh charged the idea was "experimental" and "too costly," it sounded as if he didn't care about people.

That's what ongoing polls showed, so Wofford kept hammering the issue. He visited hospitals in every media market. He put up a second, then a third TV ad on health care. By the end of the race, every Wofford statement and TV ad mentioned health insurance - and that Thornburgh was against it.

When Thornburgh conceded last Tuesday night, he said, "Concerns and anxiety about the costs and coverage of health care obviously commanded much greater attention in this campaign than we anticipated."

The stunning success of health care as an issue was not lost on Republican Arlen Specter, who is up for re-election next year.

A day after Wofford's win, Specter joined with other Senate Republicans to introduce their own health- care plan. The plan includes changes in the tax codes for small businesses and for individuals who are working but don't have health insurance.

Ironically, according to a Thornburgh confidant, Thornburgh himself raised the issue last summer. He told a pre-campaign gathering of aides that he and Republicans are "vulnerable" on health care, said the source, who added, ''We all looked at him like he was crazy. I mean, we thought, who cares about health care?"

Also, ironically, Wofford never has laid out specific legislation to create national health insurance. His campaign first argued that the debate was about whether to have it or not, not its specific form.

Later, on Oct. 18, Wofford released a nine-page "practical plan for universal coverage." But it's much more a general plan than specific. It calls for things like "reform" of health insurance practices; "a single, standard claims form" to cut administrative costs; "creation of a body" to oversee health-care costs; and a new, non-profit corporation to "deal directly with insurance companies and maximize economies of scale and minimize duplication, waste and red tape."

The "plan" concludes by saying national health care insurance is "a fundamental human right, not a privilege."

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