First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a preview of the Administration’s health care plan Monday to an unprecedented gathering of 320 Democratic and Republican members of Congress and came away with bipartisan promises of cooperation.
She spoke for more than an hour--without a text or notes--in the first of a series of workshops for Senate and House lawmakers in advance of the President’s speech Wednesday night on behalf of his landmark health care proposal.
“Health care reform is beyond politics as usual,” the First Lady said in reaching out for Republican support for the plan. “There is no partisan approach.”
Her presentation was hailed by leaders of both parties as they prepared to consider one of the most complex legislative measures ever sent to Capitol Hill by any chief executive, rivaling the New Deal’s Social Security program in its scope and degree of change.
Summing up reaction, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) termed her appearance “an excellent way to begin,” while House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said the session was “very, very productive and unique,” adding: “We can definitely work together.”
In a related development, the four women Democratic senators met with the President to discuss their efforts to lift a federal restriction on Medicaid payments for abortions and inclusion of abortion services in the health care program.
“Basically, the President agreed with us,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said after the White House session.
Under the approach favored by the President, the states would have the option of paying for abortions as part of the federal-state Medicaid program for poor women, Boxer said, while abortion would be paid for, as it is now by private insurers, as part of pregnancy-related services. For years, however, Congress has forbidden the use of any federal funds for payment of abortions under the so-called Hyde Amendment, and including such a provision in the health plan would be controversial.
The White House also confirmed that the Administration may add a provision to allow Medicare recipients to buy insurance that would give them up to $30,000 in benefits to cover nursing home bills. If included, the “Medicare Part C” insurance would be optional when individuals become eligible for Medicare at the age of 65. But the monthly premium has not yet been specified.
No decision was announced on what kind of “sin taxes” on cigarettes and alcoholic beverages the President would seek to raise $105 billion over the next five years to help pay for the health care proposal. While White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said Clinton was “very close” to deciding, Administration sources said he may set the revenue goal and allow Congress to decide how to levy the taxes.
Later, in response to reporters’ questions, Mrs. Clinton defended the plan from criticism by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). He had said that it was “fantasy” to believe that large restraints on Medicare and Medicaid spending like those proposed by the Administration could be passed by Congress. She said the figures on savings and outlays were the most accurate ever assembled.
The Administration has proposed paying for much of the cost of health reform by slowing the growth of Medicaid and Medicare payments to providers by $238 billion over seven years.
While Congress was expected to begin hearings next week on the health care bill, leaders said it was unrealistic to think that such controversial legislation could be approved before June, at the earliest.
The First Lady and others who participated in the meeting, however, said the atmosphere was so encouraging that it signaled that Congress finally was ready to consider far-reaching changes in the system after years of partisan deadlock.
Earlier, the President outlined his plan to a sympathetic group of about 100 physicians, including C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general in the Republican administrations of George Bush and Ronald Reagan.
Clinton tried to allay the fears of doctors who stand to lose some of their autonomy and income under his Administration’s plan.
“We want to respect your training, your judgment and your knowledge, and not unduly interfere with what you do,” the President said at the White House meeting. He said the legislation retains the doctor-patient relationship, a high quality of care and advanced medical technology while dealing with obvious flaws in the current system.
Koop, who intends to lead a series of forums on the proposal for doctors, gave Clinton high praise, contending that he had “accomplished more in health care reform . . . than all of his living predecessors put together.”
Mitchell told reporters that Koop also addressed the assembled lawmakers and made “extremely strong statements” in favor of the proposal--a plus for Clinton in view of Koop’s high credibility with both Republicans and Democrats.
Even so, it was the First Lady who starred at the opening day of health care “school” for scores of legislators who have just started to focus on the details of the Administration’s wide-ranging proposal.
“She was peppered with questions for over an hour and never paused once,” said one person at the session. “She always turned policy-wonk talk into plain English.”
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said the approach Hillary Clinton followed was: “We’re in an open dialogue. We think we’ve got a good idea, but we’re willing to listen to suggestions.”
“Despite the incredible partisan rancor that we have had . . . this was the most refreshing change in tone,” Boxer added. “In my 11 years here, it was the most bipartisan meeting I have seen.”
Each participant received a yellow-covered handbook, jammed with simple charts and graphs to illustrate how the plan would work, and each was invited to hourlong seminars today( on topics such as rural health care.
In an unlikely development, the Administration received some good news from the insurance industry. A public opinion poll published by Aetna, which has criticized the President’s plan, found that a majority of Americans think the reform plan would improve the health care system.
Fifty-three percent responded affirmatively to the question: “Do you think President Clinton does or does not have a plan to improve our health care system?” Another 33% said no and 14% were undecided.
Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Sara Fritz contributed to this story.
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