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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Dukakis: ‘Don’t Reinvent the Wheel’

Richard Michael Pruitt

Michael S. Dukakis, Northeastern University professor and a former governor, highlighted three important criteria for creating successful healthcare policy at a talk last week at UMass Boston.

“Broad coalition building, involving people actively from the beginning in policy making is something that you absolutely have to do go down that policy road,” he said, adding the need for executive leadership and to involve the business community, build coalitions. “If you don’t have an elected chief executive who is deeply committed to this and who is prepared to use all of the powers of his or her office, it isn’t going to happen.”

The former governor of Massachusetts and 1988 Democratic presidential candidate was invited to speak by Professor Yung-Ping Chen of the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston. Many of Prof. Chen’s students attended the speech, along with several faculty and university administrators.

Among the administration officials in attendance were Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance, Ellen O’Connor, who was the commonwealth’s chief accountant and manager of fiscal operations and budget director in the 1980s when Dukakis was governor. “Michael Dukakis is an informed, articulate authority on the health care system and its history of financing,” she said of her former boss. “His passion for improvements to benefit all Americans, especially those without health insurance, is enormous and was on full display at the excellent talk which he gave this week.”

Dukakis also brought up a new long-term healthcare policy proposal, to which he gave Chen credit for the idea, calling it “creative and politically smart policymaking in my judgment.”

According to Dukakis, this new policy would take one third of the annual cost of living increase, given yearly to social security recipients, and put it in a long-term healthcare trust fund over a five-year period. This, he says, would generate enough money to begin to pay for long-term care benefits. “What we’re saying to people like me is, ‘will you, rather than take the full cost of living, agree that a portion of it go, for your benefit, into a long-term care trust fund which will provide you with substantial long-term care benefits and relieve your kids and grandkids of that burden,'” he said. As a precursor to addressing his policy pitches, Dukakis highlighted the history of healthcare proposals from previous presidential administrations, citing Richard Nixon’s plan as particularly effective. Dukakis said Nixon’s proposal would have required companies to provide health insurance for all employees and their families, while the Medicaid program would be expanded to include the “gap group.” However, among his most important advice, which he directed towards policymakers and a man whom Dukakis called “his candidate,” the current Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator John F. Kerry, was: don’t try to reinvent the wheel. “First thing you want to do is look around see who’s been there before you, what’s been there before you and don’t waste a lot of time when other good people have actually come up with thoughtful proposals,” he said.

Throughout his talk, Dukakis joked with the audience about his annual winter trip to California to teach at UCLA, his passion for picking up trash, and his two pet-peeves: graffiti and litter. His jokes, and his policy proposals were well received by the audience. One audience member preempted her question to Dukakis with her hopes that he would one day run for office again. “You’ll have to ask my wife,” Dukakis replied.The speech was held in a small room on the 11th floor of the Healey Library at 1:30 p.m. last Monday. Presumably this was largely a private event, although the flier gave no such claim, for before Chen’s students arrived, the room was, for the most part, empty. Furthermore, there were no flyers advertising Dukakis’ speech hung in the “high traffic” areas of campus where most big events are advertised. This is not surprising considering the topic: Health Care for Seniors and Everybody Else, but it seems that other students might have been intrigued to have a chance to hear the former governor of Massachusetts speak, especially those students studying political science.

Even more surprising to some was how quickly everybody filed out of the room once the speech was over. Dukakis, whose public speaking style resembles that of President George W. Bush, in his tendency to lean on the podium and speak quickly, casually, and confidently to the audience, lending him an amiable and approachable air. Dressed in a plaid button-down shirt, khaki pants and running shoes, Dukakis looked more like the professor he is, rather than a former governor.

After emphasizing the three most important criteria for inventing health care policy, involving the business community, coalition building, and executive leadership, Dukakis pointed out that all are necessary at once for this to really work. “You’ve got to have them all together,” he said. “Any one of them that isn’t there, you’re gone.”

Dukakis is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, teaching classes in Public Policy, Health Care Policy, and American Politics. He is also a visiting professor of Policy Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, teaching classes there each winter quarter.