Obama's Iowa victory speech brings double takes
SPRINGFIELD -- If you heard Barack Obama's Iowa victory speech, you might conclude Illinois has universal health care.
"I'll be a president who finally makes health care affordable and available to every single American, the same way I expanded health care in Illinois, by bringing Democrats and Republicans together to get the job done," the Chicago Democrat said Thursday.
But Illinois doesn't have universal health care.
In fact, Obama's comment comes as Illinois is embroiled in a full-scale political fight over whether to expand coverage. Gov. Rod Blagojevich last year proposed such a plan only to see it go nowhere.
So, what was Obama talking about? It depends on whom you ask.
His campaign was quick to point to a litany of health care legislation and laws Obama sponsored or supported while in the Illinois Senate.
"He has united Democrats and Republicans to expand health care to over 150,000 Illinois residents," said campaign spokesman Ben LeBolt.
LeBolt said Obama helped expand Family Care that covers parents and their children by raising income levels so more would qualify. And he pointed to Obama being the chief sponsor of the Health Care Justice Act, which created a commission charged with making suggestions for how to improve and expand coverage.
Still, Obama's quote raised eyebrows given the lingering tension over the direction of health care policy in Illinois, although few lawmakers were willing to go on the record with any criticism.
One former colleague willing to talk was state Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican, who thought Obama stretched the truth.
"He didn't put together universal health care in Illinois," Righter said. "The best evidence of that is that we don't have universal health care in Illinois."
But Jim Duffett, executive director of the Campaign for Better Health Care, said he knew Obama was referring to his work with Family Care and the Health Care Justice Act.
"Both of those things not only concluded with a legislative victory but did bring more people to the table to build collaboration and consensus and success," Duffett said.
Other officials also questioned Obama's claim.
Robert Rich, director of the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs, considered it a stretch and questioned Obama's credentials as a health care reformer.
"He was not the prime mover and shaker for health care in Illinois," Rich said. "But to me, that's not the most important part of this. As the victor in Iowa, he's highlighting health care as a really important issue."
Meanwhile, the Blagojevich administration welcomed Obama's support.
"We're glad Senator Obama shares Governor Blagojevich's vision of making sure every person has access to affordable health care, and are encouraged by his determination to advance the cause at the national level," said spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff. "The governor has been pushing over the last year to give everyone in Illinois access to health care … but the legislature hasn't acted. … Every bit of pressure for action helps."