Mrs. Clinton goes to Hill for views on health care

February 05, 1993|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton made her first visit to Capitol Hill yesterday as head of the president's task force on health care -- and left no doubt she is firmly in charge.

Mrs. Clinton, whose position on the task force is the most powerful formal job ever given to a first lady, met with 29 Democratic senators and then with two Republican leaders to discuss health care reform.

And even though the task force includes Cabinet secretaries and high-ranking presidential aides, she told the senators she'd be their first point of contact with the group.

A White House official said Mrs. Clinton would lobby lawmakers on behalf of her husband, explaining, "It's part of building a policy."

Those present at the two meetings said they went well, with no discord. Mrs. Clinton came to listen, to explain how the task force would work and coordinate its efforts with Congress. The senators did most of the talking.

At the meeting with Senate Democrats, Mrs. Clinton spoke for 3 to 5 minutes, outlining the president's major objectives: to "control costs" and "provide security for every American family" without burdening employers who provide insurance, said the White House official, who asked not to be identified.

Senators offered suggestions and policy ideas and asked questions about the task force's procedures. White House and congressional aides say the task force is dividing up into roughly 20 working groups to tackle specific issues and that members of Congress will be brought into the discussions.

In remarks to reporters after the meeting, the first lady warned that health care reform will encounter obstacles because it "will require people to do things differently."

"People know there's a problem," she said, citing, "People who have been denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition; who cannot change jobs because if they do they lose the insurance for their spouse or their child; people who are laid off and lose their benefits; people who are in the 100,000 Americans a month who lose their health insurance; people who have to wait in long lines to immunize their children."

An aide noted that the White House had solicited public comment and had received, 2,000 letters so far. Whether there will be outreach programs -- televised town hall meetings of the ++ kind Mr. Clinton did in the campaign -- remains to be seen, he said.

Mrs. Clinton did not spell out what particular policy directions the task force might pursue. "We are continuing to study health systems in other countries that work better than ours," an administration official said.

"A lot of specific suggestions were made, [but] no conclusions were reached," said Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, the majority leader. But he predicted Congress will enact major reforms this year. "When that happens, a major part of the credit will be due to the effort and leadership of Mrs. Clinton," he said.

Mrs. Clinton called a number of lawmakers after being named head of the task force by Mr. Clinton, and then was invited by Mr. Mitchell to meet senators.

She asked for a meeting with Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., the minority leader, said Lisa Caputo, her press secretary.

The Republican leader had a one word comment about his meeting with Mrs. Clinton: "Good." It was also attended by Sen. John H. Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican.

Meanwhile, three Republican senators and two Democrati House members introduced their own health reform proposal yesterday, hoping to shape the debate that won't get fully under way until the Clinton administration presents its plan this spring.

The proposal, outlined at a press conference by Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, a Kansas Republican, would require that every American be covered by a basic insurance package.

All insurance companies would have to offer this package, with the price and benefits determined by an independent commission of experts. Americans who can't afford the so-called "BasiCare" plan would receive government assistance to buy it.

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