To the trained ears of Southern California’s health care professionals, President Clinton’s call for national health care reform hit very few false notes.
The need to provide health care coverage to the uninsured, the emphasis on preventive and primary medical care, the problem of skyrocketing premiums that are pricing many out of the health care system, excessive paperwork--all are problems they have been forced to live with on a daily basis.
Wendy Lazarus of Children Now, an advocacy group for children’s health care, said the President’s speech “hit all the critical marks for children: the need to provide health care for every American child, uninterrupted care, preventive and primary services and affordability for services.”
Lazarus, who watched the President’s speech on television in her Santa Monica office, said the true test of the health plan will be in “the details” of how it will work.
Los Angeles County Health Director Robert C. Gates listened to the speech on the radio as he drove home through rush-hour traffic. “There is very little in the speech that I would disagree with,” he said later.
One disappointment for Gates was that Clinton didn’t address the problem of how the health care system should handle illegal immigrants--a dilemma of particular interest in California.
The President’s plan, as it stands, would provide reimbursements for hospitals that provide the care, but at the same time, the federal government would end hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to urban hospitals that are used heavily by illegal immigrants.
“He didn’t get into it, and I can see why,” Gates said. “It’s a politically touchy area. But he did make a point that if some people don’t pay, it drags down the whole system. I think undocumented aliens fit into that category. Someone has got to pay for their care.”
The President’s speech seemed to generate a tremendous amount of interest in Southern California, and it took on the trappings and excitement of a political event, sparked in part by teams of Clinton political workers who spent days laying the groundwork for the speech.
There were press conferences, formal gatherings by health care providers, house parties sponsored by the Democratic Party and a multitude of live interviews with health care officials on local television.
With an early draft of the plan in circulation for a week, most people close to the health care industry had a good idea of what Clinton was going to say. Hence, the “reactions” started well before the speech.
David Langness, a spokesman for the Hospital Council of Southern California, spent much of the day doing interviews with the local news media. His day began at 4 a.m. when the alarm went off so he could get ready to appear on a morning TV interview show.
“There is so much anticipation of the impact of this plan,” he said. After Clinton’s speech, Langness described it as “long on emotion and short on content” but said nevertheless that he was “pleased” Clinton was addressing such an important issue.
The Democratic Party, milking the unveiling of the health plan for the all the political mileage it could get, organized a series of “watch parties” throughout California.
In the Los Angeles area, hospital chiefs, educators, physicians and students mingled at an apartment in Westwood.
At a private home in Hollywood, state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, who created a state plan that was a major influence on the development of Clinton’s plan, watched the speech with other Democrats.
Garamendi called the President’s speech “terrific” and took some of the credit. “The basic program is what we created in California, my staff and I,” he told reporters who watched with him.
In a nonpartisan gathering at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, a group of about 150 doctors assembled by the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. watched the speech on two TV sets in a conference room.
They sipped sodas and nibbled on cheese and crackers during the speech, and afterward the big question among the doctors was who is going to pay for all the reforms sought by Clinton.
Dr. Arthur Wissot said: “He said very little that anyone could disagree with, but implementing it is going to be very difficult. I have great concerns about the ability of the government to run a health care plan.”
One of the more bemused participants in some of the pre-speech buildup was Dr. Paul Ellwood, president of the Jackson Hole Group, a think tank that first developed the “managed competition” concept that is part of the Clinton plan.
Ellwood said he has been lobbying presidents for health care reform since the 1960s and tried to sell many of the ideas and concepts in Clinton’s plan to President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.
In Ventura County, health care workers in the emergency room cafeteria at Ventura County Medical Center tuned in to Clinton’s speech and found it long on spirit but short on details.
Nurse Corky Griffith said she feared chaos could result from Clinton’s plan to issue national “health security” cards. “If you just give people these cards and say: ‘Here ya go,’ you’re going to create a monster,” Griffith said. “He’s really not saying how any of this would work.”
But Nat Baumer, head of the emergency room, was more forgiving. “I don’t think you can get into all of that in an hour’s speech,” he said. “He’s laid the groundwork of a great plan; now we need to see about the details.”
At the state capital, where key elements of health care reform may ultimately be implemented, the mood toward the President’s address was blase.
The TV set at Brannan’s, a watering hole close to the Capitol, was black. “Nobody asked to have it on,” shrugged the bartender.
Down the street at the Quorum, the TVs were tuned to baseball--not health care. “Hey there’s a pennant race between the Giants and Braves, you know, " said one patron.
Gov. Pete Wilson, who watched the President’s address on TV, issued a written statement that focused on the taxes and added costs to businesses that he thought the proposed health plan might require.
At Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, 18 people gathered to watch Clinton’s address, including doctors, administrators, volunteers and community members. At the end of the speech, the room erupted into enthusiastic applause.
One of the participants was Jim Sandlin, owner of Libbea & Watkins Printing in Hollywood. Sandlin, who has three full-time and one part-time employee at the union shop, said 20% of his $100,000 annual payroll goes to cover health care costs.
“It’s really wiping me out,” said Sandlin, 57.
Times staff writers John Hurst, Thomas H. Maugh II, Renee Tawa, Sara Catania, Virginia Ellis in Sacramento and Leslie Berkman in Orange County contributed to this story.