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HSAs No Panacea, Former Bush Cabinet Member Says

FEBRUARY 15, 2006 -- In a week in which President Bush is going all-out to pitch health savings accounts as the key to overhauling U.S. health care, one of his former cabinet members isn't exactly singing from the same hymnal—not that he ever was entirely in tune with the administration.

HSAs didn't loom large in a plan for fixing health care laid out Tuesday by former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. Thompson called for a system of mandated coverage in which states would place the uninsured in pools and insurance companies would be invited to submit bids on how much they'd charge to cover them, among other changes.

Asked after his speech to the AARP board of directors whether HSAs would reduce the pool of uninsured, Thompson said they are no panacea and only are good for some people.

"I think health savings accounts are very good," he said. "I like health savings accounts. But it's only one thing. It's not the totality that I'm talking about."

Thompson did say the accounts "are good for certain people," but that "it's not the panacea for everybody. Health savings accounts are a good step. But what I'm talking about is a program that is going to actually give people coverage."

Thompson said the leadership needed to cover the uninsured does not exist but he predicted that the 2008 election would be about health care. And rather than hurt the economy, coverage would help it, he asserted. "I can show you that if you followed my ideas on the uninsured that it would actually be a net positive to the economy," he said.

"Why? You would have companies coming back in and offering health insurance. You would have individuals coming in and be required to have health insurance and be able to go in to a doctor instead of an emergency room. And there would be much more affordability and accessibility. And if everybody's covered by health insurance, that stimulates the health care sector by a great deal."

Thompson caused controversy when he left office by saying the U.S. food supply is too vulnerable to a terrorist attack and that the HHS secretary should have authority to negotiate the prices Medicare will pay for individual drugs covered by the program's new drug benefit. The drug industry and the Bush administration are staunchly opposed to giving government that power, saying it would undermine innovation and that competition among drug plans is a more effective way to control costs.

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