Noriega Lays Out Health Plan – Minus Universal Coverage

In a tough race against Cornyn, Noriega tries to distinguish himself on health care

Rick Noriega
Rick Noriega (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Continuing his attack against incumbent Republican Sen. John Cornyn, Democratic state Rep. Rick Noriega of Houston has shifted the battlefront from energy to health care in the past couple of weeks. However, anyone hoping that Noriega would be a progressive promoter of universal, single-payer coverage will be let down – he released a six-page policy paper late last month calling for health-care reforms, but the phrases "universal coverage" and "single-payer" are nowhere to be found in the document.

Nonetheless, in the weeks following the paper, Noriega tried to differentiate himself from the state's junior senator with a barrage of statements slamming Cornyn for endorsing the health-care plan of his Senate colleague, GOP presidential nominee John McCain. "Under the Cornyn Scheme, the majority of Texans would be paying higher taxes, paying more for less coverage, and employers would lose incentives to offer health insurance to their employees," the Noriega campaign said in a press release fired off Sept. 2.

The nut of the McCain plan is that it would tax workers on the value of insurance provided by employers – benefits that are currently untaxed – but simultaneously offer all Amer­i­cans a direct refundable tax credit of $2,500 for individuals or $5,000 for families to offset the cost of insurance. McCain's website ( says this would encourage people to shop around for the coverage that suits them best and to make informed choices, and it would free them from being chained to a particular job just to keep the insurance. "There's no reason today to have health-insurance policies tied to employers," Cornyn told reporters at the Republican National Convention Sept. 1, as reported by The Dallas Morning News.

The problem is, Noriega says, employers would lose incentives to offer health insurance, and thus the plan would wreck the system that provided coverage for 179 million people in 2007. Some industry insiders quoted by the Morning News agreed, including Bob Queyrouze, overseer of benefits at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, who called the plan "radical" and said, "Long term, it would be destructive to the system."

"Not one single family would have greater access to health care under the Cornyn plan," argued Noriega spokesman Martine Apodaca, working hard to make McCain and Cornyn one and the same. "It's a shame that in the state where 45 percent of the residents are uninsured for at least part of the year, John Cornyn tells Texas families, 'You're on your own,' with the insurance companies. Cornyn thinks forcing Texas families to fend for themselves in the individual insurance market is better than the employer-based health-care system. But people don't choose to be sick like they choose to buy a car or a pair of shoes."

The Noriega camp also pointed to a report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive think tank, which claims McCain's tax credit would, in the long run, end up being a tax increase. If CAPAF's numbers prove correct, the credit – which would be tied to the rate of inflation rather than the cost of health premiums – would be quickly outstripped by rising insurance costs, a problem that CAPAF says would hit middle-class families the hardest.

Naturally, Cornyn spokesman Rob Jesmer differed with the notion that the McCain plan amounted to a "health tax." "Senator Cornyn has a long record of opposing tax hikes," Jes­mer said in a press release, and is "intent on expanding the number of people who benefit from quality health insurance. He advocates for a plan that gives Texans more choices and flexibility while protecting access to employer-based health care at the same time."

We asked another Cornyn spokesman, David Beckwith, to elaborate. "We agree with the McCain plan as a basic concept. ... The general idea is to give the same sort of tax advantages to people who are self-employed or working for small businesses, find ways to get them insured, and improve their choices ... not restrict their choices by turning the whole thing over to single-payer, government-paid health care, and that's the way the Democrats want to go."

Of course, as said, it's actually not the way Noriega wants to go. Rather than government-run health care, Noriega advocates for something called an "insurance connector," whereby the federal government would help link people with appropriate insurance, based on a sliding income scale, and advocate for consumers. As for universal single-payer, Apodaca says universal yes, single-payer no: "No, that's not what we support. ... Covering as many Americans as possible should be an amalgam between private and public resources. ... We think that is best and what is doable." Apodaca also attacked six Cornyn votes against expanding the State Child­ren's Health Insurance Program as evidence of the senator's failures on health care. Noriega wants to raise the eligibility from 200% of the federal poverty level to 300%; Cornyn's camp has replied that he supports SCHIP but at a more "reasonable" level.

Apodaca ridiculed a Monday e-mail from Jesmer to Cornyn supporters that claimed, "Senator Cornyn will be the last line of defense between you and universal health care, activist judges and higher taxes." Regarding the first of those three, Apodaca said, "I could not agree more."

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