Yes, I've been resisting talking about the health plans of the Presidential candidates, primarily because regardless of how important they are, I don't think the election is going to swing on these issues. I did make a minor exception pointing to a commentary by Brad DeLong on the Catastrophic component of Kerry's health plan, which I agree is a nice idea.
However, it does seem that Kerry takes the issue seriously and it does seem that he's got a decent chance of being elected so it's probably worth a look. Let's cut to the chase: though I would disagree with a number of specifics, I think the core of Kerry's proposals, allowing everyone to join the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) actually takes us in the right direction. This is not toward a single-payer system, but sets the stage for universal coverage with choice of health plans. Even more than the catastrophic coverage component of Kerry's plan, this is a really promising initiative. It's a variation of Bill Bradley's 2000 proposal. (Full disclosure: I did some unpaid work for the Bradley campaign, including critiquing his health plan and I strongly supported him and his health plan.) This plan also fixes the mistake we made long ago tying health coverage to employment and takes advantage of the fact that employers are trying to cut loose. (Actually Kerry's proposals are substantively better than Gore's and probably politically smarter than Bradley's were four years ago.)
Chris Lydon and I agree on the need for universal coverage, but disagree on the best means of running such a system. He supports "single-payer." I do not. But he does a quite nice summary of Kerry's proposals here along with his comments.
I'm not going to bother with Bush's proposals because he's had his chance and it's never seemed that he felt strongly about these issues, much less proposals for remedying healthcare problems. To my mind the most telling moment regarding Bush and healthcare in the 2000 campaign was when an uninsured woman asked what he hoped to do to help her and her family. Bush's response was that he "wished he could wave a magic wand." To his mind solving her problem was outside the realm of government action. Though I strongly disagree with it, that's a legitimate position. But I don't think the Bush Administration is particularly honest about its philosophy. Recognizing the political risks of being straightforward, it masks its positions with rather lame proposals and even more lame attempts to blame all of healthcare's ills on trial lawyers. (The one exception to this is the Adminstration's inspired appointment of David Brailer, MD, to spearhead efforts to move the healthcare system into the electronic age.)
Here are some criteria I laid out four years ago for getting some perspective (subscription may be required) on different candidates' proposals. Regretably perhaps, they still apply.
During the debate last night, President Bush referenced the "Lewin Report." That presumably was the work that John Sheils of Lewin and Company did. You'll find background on John's analysis here. The Report itself is here (PDF). John and some of his colleagues did some work for me some years ago and I found him knowledgeable and rigorous.
Factcheck did a nice analysis of the Bush campaign's accusation that Kerry's plan would put "government bureaucrats" in charge of your personal healthcare.
Ken Thorpe, a professor at Emory has critiqued Bush's proposals here and has estimated the costs of Kerry's proposals here and here. You'll also find a note on the Lewin analysis here and on an AEI analysis here. Thorpe's a smart and knowledgeable guy, but he sometimes presents himself "neutral" when he's not. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health Policy in HHS during the Clinton Administration and coordinated financial estimates and program impacts of President Clinton's health care reform proposals for the White House. While I'm quite sympathetic to many of his policy preferences, there have been times when I thought his presentations of himself were disingenuous and I thus worried about what was buried in his analyses.
So if you're looking to use healthcare as the key to deciding on which Presidential candidate to support, go with Kerry. You can read all the detailed analyses of costs, but let's face it, such cost estimates are of doubtful usefulness during a campaign. Indeed, from what we've seen with the cost estimates for the Medicare Modernization Act, they don't make much difference in legislating either. What's more important is commitment, philosophy and direction. On those criteria, Kerry wins hands-down.
Update: 10/14 5:30 PM: I should have added Matthew's take on another part of the issues, covering kids. Here's his take.