COLUMBIA - With Social Security on a back burner, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint is devoting his energy to health care and expanding savings accounts that he says will make people better consumers and drive down costs.
"In the next few years, we're either going to go to socialized medicine, like Canada has, or we're going to move in this direction of helping individuals to have (health insurance) policies that they can afford and keep," Mr. DeMint told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "We can't stay where we are because the system is beginning to collapse."
Although a national prescription drug program for seniors has created problems, it has shown a private-public system can work, and that may build support for sweeping changes in paying for health care, he said.
"Senior citizens are seeing that they can buy health insurance with government assistance, but it is still a private policy that they decide on and they own," Mr. DeMint said.
He wants citizens to be able to buy health insurance policies from companies anywhere in the nation. That's one way of opening competition now muted by state-by-state regulation.
Looking into the future, Mr. DeMint says everyone in this country should "have a private health insurance plan that they can afford, that they own and that they keep. That's where we need to be going."
Private health care savings accounts are the way to pay for much of that, he said. Some employers and governments offer that option to their employees now to curb insurance costs. Mr. DeMint was stopping at one Columbia business Tuesday that puts $2,500 into its employees' health savings accounts.
"What it does is it takes most of your health care and it turns you into a shopper. And when you start shopping for health care, lots of good things start happening," he said.
If consumers directly paid for health care, that would drive costs down, Mr. DeMint said.
That, he says, is what happened with laser eye surgery, a procedure most health insurance plans wouldn't cover. But consumers were willing to pay for it and shopped around while care providers found ways to drive down costs. "That's what happens when you have a shopping consumer environment," he said.
Mr. DeMint, who took his Senate seat in January 2005, spent most of his three U.S. House terms working on another system some describe as collapsing: Social Security. But it's unlikely that issue is moving forward anytime soon - and particularly not in an election year.
It ran "into too many obstacles last year. We need a bipartisan effort of some kind," he said. One sign of how far away that goal is came in President Bush's State of the Union address. Mr. Bush chided opponents of his plan, but Democrats cheered loudly.
That opposition may change "after this election when they take another hit in the gut" for "cheering themselves for doing nothing," Mr. DeMint said.
Mr. Bush shares the blame for the issue being sidelined, Mr. DeMint said.
The president "talked too much about the problem, and then when he talked about the solution, he mentioned benefit cuts. That shouldn't be a part of any plan."
Instead, the message needs to be an effort "to stop the raid on Social Security," Mr. DeMint said. At least now it is "safe politically to talk about it, and it's good politics, so it's going to be back. We've got to solve the problem."
He also says he wants to curtail the culture of lobbying by sending back to states most of the money legislators now earmark for pork projects in the federal budget.