The Issues: Health Insurance

CBS News continues a month-long series – titled "What Does It Mean To You?" – focused on where the presidential candidates stand on major issues and how a vote for one or the other candidate might affect average people's lives.

In the second report in the series, CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin looks at soaring health insurance costs.

Carolyn Samit's days are defined by syringes and catheters.

"I have a catheter that starts in my arm and goes to my heart," she says.

Plagued by an immune disorder, she needs intravenous antibiotics eight hours a day in order to stay alive. She had been covered by her husband's insurance, but when he died, so did his plan.

"We just never thought about the fact that somebody wouldn't pay for my illness, for my bills," she says.

So she was forced to buy private insurance. In 1996, her premiums cost $212 a month; today it's more than $4,000 for one month of coverage.

A charity is paying the premiums for now, but when that stops in October, Carolyn will be out of luck and perhaps out of time.

"I suppose I am prepared to die," she says. "What choice do I have?"

Carolyn's situation has her watching the presidential campaign with intense interest, wondering, "What will it mean to me?" Both George Bush and John Kerry acknowledge the country's health insurance woes are a top priority. Carolyn wants to know: will one of them be able to save her life?

"The first legislation I will submit to Congress will be a health care plan for all Americans," Kerry has said. His plan calls for spending $650 billion over 10 years.

George Bush says it's "really important for our society to have a health care system that meets the needs of every patient, every consumer."

He's offering to spend $90 billion over ten years.

Both men have intricate ideas for offering coverage and containing costs.

But healthcare policy expert Dr. Uwe Rheinhardt says people in trouble, like Carolyn Samit, need to ignore the details and look at the dollars.

"The Kerry bill simply does a lot more," Rheinhardt says. "It's willing to put more money on the table."

Sen. Kerry's pledge of $650 billion includes funding for catastrophic illnesses like Carolyn's and would give her the option of buying a federal health plan.

President Bush's plan, which calls for health credits for low-income families, would give Carolyn Samit about $500 a year.

"I believe that Mr. Bush doesn't give a damn about me," Carolyn says.

Mr. Bush would disagree, of course, and says the Kerry plan would break the bank. Carolyn's willing to pay the question is, is the rest of the country?

Says health care expert Uwe Reinhardt: "Do we as a people say, 'Let her die?' Or do we say, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'"