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Bush Touts Plan To Help Uninsured

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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ President Bush on Wednesday pushed his plan to expand health care coverage to millions of people by shifting decisions _ and responsibility _ to individuals.

Bush's proposal is one of the few major initiatives from his scaled-back State of the Union address last month. It assumes market forces and changes in the tax code will expand affordable choices.

``The best decisions are made by providers and patients, not by governments and insurance companies,'' Bush said during comments at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

``If you want a health care system that really works, you want the decision-maker to be the individual, in consultation with somebody who knows what they're talking about _ somebody trained to help that person make the proper decision,'' Bush said. ``That'd be your doctor.''

The main ingredient of Bush's proposal would be a change in the tax code that, for the first time, would treat health insurance costs as taxable income _ meaning that workers' taxable wages will increase.

In turn, Bush wants a standard tax deduction for those who buy health insurance _ $15,000 for family coverage and $7,500 for individual coverage. Those who chose insurance policies below the size of the new deduction would end up with a decrease in their tax bills.

Key Democratic leaders have denounced Bush's plan. They say it does little to help the poorest of the uninsured and undercuts a system built on employer-provided coverage.

``While the president's focus on health care is important, his proposals will only worsen the crisis by undermining the quality coverage that millions of working families now rely on,'' said Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate panel that oversees health matters.

Still, White House officials see health care as one of a few areas in which they might advance their agenda with Democrats who now control Congress. They got a boost last week when a bipartisan group of 10 senators told Bush they want to work with him to expand health coverage.

Bush received a hearty ovation as he described his plan in Chattanooga. He shared a stage with people who hold full-time jobs but can't afford health insurance for their families.

One of them was Danny Jennings, a father of two and manager of a nursery. Bush said the change in tax code would save Jennings more than $4,000 a year on his tax bill.

``There's more money in his pocket as a result of the standard tax deduction, and there's more peace of mind knowing that his kids _ and he and his wife _ are covered,'' Bush said.

People will also start paying attention to how much health procedures really cost, which is bound to help, Bush said. The president compared it to knowing how much a car costs.

And then he realized he doesn't know that.

``I used to,'' said a laughing Bush, who travels by limousine. ``I will soon.''

Earlier, Bush toured the nonprofit Erlinger Hospital, which is allied with the University of Tennessee's College of Medicine. Erlinger serves patients from 50 counties in a 150-mile radius.

Dr. Donald Chamberlain explained to Bush how he used a robot-assisted device to minimize blood loss during a recent cancer surgery. As Bush watched a video of the invasive procedure, the doctor asked him: ``Blood OK? You OK with blood?''

``Heck yeah, I'm OK with blood,'' Bush said, with an eye on the cameras on him. ``How about you, doc?''

The White House characterizes its approach as basic fairness, in that every person will get the same tax deduction whether they get health coverage through their job or on their own.

Bush also wants to redirect federal dollars that hospitals and other institutions get to help cover costs for caring for the uninsured. With this money, states would set up programs to assist people in getting health coverage and help people with high-cost health conditions.

On the way out of town, Bush popped into Porker's Bar-B-Que restaurant, where he posed for photos, shook hands and sat down in a booth to chat with local residents.
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