Clinton Insists Medicare Reform Can Be Painless : Health care: In Culver City, the President tells senior citizens that costs can be contained without cutting benefits.


President Clinton defended his proposed Medicare cost cuts at a senior citizens forum Tuesday in Culver City, arguing that even under his plan, spending on the government health program for the elderly would continue to increase at twice the rate of inflation.

Under current projections, Medicare costs will grow at three times the rate of inflation over five years. Clinton would finance about 10% of the cost of his health plan by limiting the growth of that spending. His contention that he can restrain costs without reducing benefits to Medicare recipients has been one of his plan's most hotly challenged aspects. Several prominent Democratic members of Congress and some advocates for the elderly have called that proposal unrealistic.

But, Clinton said, although "there may be people who try to stop us from getting" them, the reductions should be achievable without cutting benefits.

"If we can't get a government health program down to the point where it can run on twice the rate of inflation, we're in deep trouble," he said.

Tuesday's forum, attended by about 2,000 people in a Culver City park on a sunny morning, was cut slightly short as Clinton headed back to Washington for meetings on the continued fighting in Somalia. The President took questions for about 45 minutes from members of the crowd, including questions of interest to the elderly--Medicare benefits, prescription drug costs, long-term care--repeating statements he has made in the past.

He left his chief health care adviser, Ira Magaziner, behind to answer more questions, but few in the crowd--many of whom had been bused in by the American Assn. of Retired Persons--stayed to listen.

Senior citizens who attended Tuesday's event seemed mostly supportive of the President, but many said they doubt he will be able to push the health plan through Congress.

"I hope some semblance of what he's saying will be in the final bill that's passed," said Betty Durbin of Westwood. "I hope it will be in my lifetime."

The forum was the last stop on a three-day California visit largely overshadowed by fighting in Somalia and in Russia and was the first event on the trip that actually was devoted to health care--the topic that White House officials initially had intended to be the focus of the trip.

Clinton had two major purposes Tuesday. The first was the Administration's continuing desire to cultivate voters in California--a state that is crucial to Clinton's reelection hopes.

Second, senior citizens are a key constituency for his health reform package, either as powerful supporters or as potentially devastating opponents. The President, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and other senior Administration figures have gone out of their way to cultivate the AARP and other senior citizens groups, assuring them that the Clinton plan would not damage Medicare and, instead, would expand medical benefits for the elderly.

The chief sweeteners in the plan for senior citizens are a new program to subsidize the cost of prescription drugs, and expanded provisions for long-term care.

Special correspondent Jeff Kramer contributed to this story.

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