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AARP Backs Democratic Health Bills : Reform: Support by the board of huge senior citizens group represents major boost for Mitchell, Gephardt proposals. AMA leaders, business factions oppose senator’s plan.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Major organizations with deeply held interests in the health care debate began choosing sides Wednesday on the Senate leadership’s reform legislation, led by the influential American Assn. of Retired Persons, which ended months of neutrality by endorsing the plan.

The AARP board of directors said that it will urge the organization’s 33 million members nationwide to support the bill put together by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), as well as House legislation shaped by Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). The two bills differ in key details but both have been embraced by President Clinton, who says that either would meet his goal of eventually achieving universal coverage.

“My bottom line is what it has always been. We have to have a system that over a period of time will lead to universal coverage,” Clinton said in a meeting with reporters Wednesday.

Just hours after the AARP’s endorsement was announced, the American Medical Assn. board, meeting in Chicago, voted to declare its “nonsupport” for the Senate bill and a number of business organizations led by three of the nation’s most powerful business groups, disclosed that they may form an umbrella alliance to fight the legislation.

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The special interest jockeying reflected the realization that after more than a year of public debate over health care reform, the issue is nearing final action. “We have been waiting a long time for this to happen,” said AARP President Eugene Lehrmann, speaking for the organization’s board. “Now is the time for us to strike.”

“Although neither bill is perfect, we conclude that these bills provide the foundation for comprehensive health care for all Americans,” he said. “If either bill is defeated, health care reform will be dead for years to come.”

The organization plans to buy newspaper ads and to activate itsnational network of 250,000 volunteers to lobby for the bills.

In announcing its opposition to Mitchell’s bill, the AMA board, representing the nation’s largest doctors organization, also disclosed that it is backing a bipartisan bill in the House that increasingly looms as an alternative to Gephardt’s proposal and seeks far more modest reforms.

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The AMA’s endorsement of the bill written by Reps. J. Roy Rowland (D-Ga.) and Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.)--which has 74 sponsors, 37 from each party--came even as the two men are about to join forces with a somewhat smaller, but like-minded, bipartisan group of House colleagues.

For weeks, Rowland and Bilirakis have been negotiating privately with Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Fred Grandy (R-Iowa) in hopes of forming a broad alliance. Cooper and Grandy’s bill has 57 co-sponsors from both parties.

Like a proposal introduced in the Senate late Tuesday night by Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, the emerging bipartisan House bill does not guarantee coverage to the 39 million uninsured Americans. Rather, it would rely on incremental reforms, such as banning discriminatory practices to enable consumers to take their insurance from job to job and to buy affordable policies even if they or their family members have existing illnesses.

One problem with the evolving bipartisan plan is that it is currently projected to attain only about 90% coverage--a potential obstacle to gaining broader support, Grandy conceded Wednesday.

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Even so, AMA board chairman P. John Seward, a Rockford, Ill., physician, said in a telephone interview that the Rowland-Bilirakis and Cooper-Grandy approach “offers the best and most realistic chance in the House for comprehensive health care reform.”

Further ominous news for Clinton and his congressional allies surfaced Wednesday when the National Federation of Independent Business, which has waged a highly effective campaign against mandatory workplace-based insurance, disclosed that it is discussing with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Assn. of Manufacturers and other business groups the formation of an alliance to fight Mitchell’s bill.

As special interests chose sides, senators spent a good part of the afternoon of their second day of debate discussing whether to slow down the pace of deliberations, with Republicans demanding more time to study Mitchell’s bill and Democrats resisting such demands.

Earlier in the day, as expected, the Senate handily defeated an amendment by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to put off the issue until next year.

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The House is to begin debating health care reform next week.

* PROS AND CONS: What’s good and bad about the various health plans. A5


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