No Health Insurance? You're Not Alone

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Is Bill Bradley psychic? Probably not, but judging from his pledge last week to enact sweeping improvements to current health care coverage, he’s got a darn good sense of timing. On Monday, the Census Bureau reported that 44.3 million Americans were without health insurance in 1998 — 1 million more than were uninsured in 1997. Behind the rising numbers, paradoxically, is the vibrant economy — combined with a cutback on government handouts — which has pushed many people off the welfare rolls (where Medicaid is provided) and into jobs without coverage.

What to do? Americans like the idea of Bradley-like universal care; it’s the specific, perceived threats of such plans — like lowered quality of care and lack of access to specialists — that make people nervous. "People are worried about health care," says TIME medical writer Christine Gorman. "They’re asking why so many are still uninsured." But, says Gorman, increasing mandatory coverage doesn’t get at the underlying problem: medical costs. "They're rising much faster than the economy can bear," she adds.

Bradley’s plan, which Al Gore has criticized as "unrealistic," aims to cover 95 percent of the uninsured, while Gore’s plan focuses primarily on children. Both carry the fingerprints of the Clintons’ ill-fated universal health care proposal, a point Republican hopefuls are sure to hammer home during their campaigns. Meanwhile, the Republican candidates’ health care proposals — which range from doing nothing to upping coverage for selected groups — may fall short of Americans’ expectations. The lesson for all the candidates? People want change, but don’t try to sell them on a quick fix. "We’re seeing incremental changes to the system, and that’s what it’s going to take," says Gorman. "It took us a while to get into this mess, and it’s going to take us a while to get out."