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Clinton Urges Elderly to Back Embattled Health Plan : Medicine: President touts combination of long-term care, drug coverage and physician choice. He hopes for official AARP support.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking to strengthen a much-needed ally’s wavering support, President Clinton on Tuesday urged the nation’s elderly to join the fight for his embattled health reform plan because “the time has come to be counted.”

Appearing before about 2,000 older Americans in a college gymnasium here, Clinton declared that, among competing health care plans, only his offers the combination of long-term care, drug coverage and physician choice that are foremost among the concerns of the elderly.

He aimed a pointed appeal at the well-financed and politically potent American Assn. of Retired Persons, which has praised some of his plan’s concepts but not embraced it in its entirety.

“The AARP ought to be for the only plan that helps you. Otherwise, the interest groups will convince Congress you don’t really care and you will lose these parts of the plan,” Clinton warned. “And if you want it, you’re going to have to fight for it.”

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Clinton coupled the appeal with an attempt to enlist the power of the elderly in fighting the balanced-budget amendment, now pending in Congress, that threatens financing for his health reform plan. Many believe, he said, that the amendment “will lead to dramatic cuts in Social Security and Medicare without doing a thing to fix the health care system or add to your security.”

Clinton’s remarks, which marked the start of two weeks of concentrated appeals to the elderly, came amid signs of weak support from the group that was expected to be a pillar of the Clinton team’s reform campaign.

A just-completed AARP poll showed that, although the plan would give the elderly $26 billion in additional drug and long-term care benefits, many older Americans are perplexed by its complexity and fearful of what its intention to squeeze out $124 billion in Medicare costs would mean for them.

According to the poll, 52% believed that the plan would lower the quality of their care, 50% expected higher costs and 54% were convinced that Clinton’s reform would be accompanied by more government bureaucracy.

“Many of our members are strongly for it but others don’t know quite what to make of it,” said Bernice Shepherd, a New Jersey AARP official who joined the Clintons on the Middlesex Community College podium.

AARP’s explicit backing could give Clinton important added leverage in Congress, which saw a demonstration of AARP’s power in a bitter fight over coverage of catastrophic illnesses in the 1980s. AARP’s official support might also bring the added bonus of a well-funded advertising campaign in support of the Clinton blueprint.

But a decision by the AARP not to back the plan would hurt, particularly after recent snubs by major business groups.

Hoping for solid support from the elderly, the Administration designed its plan to offer drug and long-term care benefits and to bar physicians from charging more for their services than Medicare pays.

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Although the Clinton plan would keep the Medicare system in place temporarily, states eventually would be allowed to shift Medicare patients into the lower-cost health system that the plan establishes for others.

Clinton said that of the major plans presented today only his “proposes to keep Medicare strong and make it stronger.” Only one proposal, he said, “deals with long-term care and prescription drugs for the elderly--our proposal.”

Although several plans call for squeezing savings from Medicare, only Clinton’s would funnel those savings back into the system, Clinton said.

Of the major competing plans, the so-called single-payer proposal sponsored by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) also includes coverage for long-term care and prescription drugs.

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The bill written by Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) would cover prescription drugs but not long-term care. The proposal by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) contains neither provision, but he is said to be considering incorporating both.

Clinton spoke darkly of what might happen if his plan does not succeed. “There are a lot of people who really believe the only way to reduce the deficit and reform health care is to basically take benefits away from older Americans,” he said.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton joined the President at the rally, underscoring how much importance the White House attached to this effort to strengthen ties to the aged.

In remarks that preceded the President’s, Mrs. Clinton drew a comparison that hinted at how formidable the White House now considers the opposition to its plan.

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She compared the Clintons’ health reform effort to the prospects of Tommy Moe, the Alaskan skier who won a gold medal in downhill skiing in the Olympic competition in Lillehammer, Norway, this week.

“I suppose a lot of people would argue that this is as impossible a dream as it was for Tommy Moe,” she said. “He’d been written off by every pundit and everybody who wrote about skiing, and our country’s magazines and newspapers didn’t give him any kind of a chance.”

But like Clinton, she said, Moe “believed he could do it.”

White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers attributed any softness of support from the elderly to the publicity campaign by insurance industry opponents.

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“There has been a lot of misinformation out there,” she said.


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