Hillary Clinton gets an earful on health First lady chairs 5-hour Fla. hearing

March 13, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Writer

TAMPA, Fla. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday that if she's learned anything as leader of the president's task force on health care reform, it's that "We have a population of about 250 million Americans and we have about 250 million experts on health care."

Yesterday, she heard from a large chunk of that army in the first of four forums she's to hold this month with ordinary people -- albeit ordinary people carefully screened and hand-picked by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Princeton, N.J., health organization.

She heard from a cancer patient who'd lost her insurance, the daughter of an Alzheimer's patient who had depleted the family's assets to pay for care. She heard from doctors who sang the praises of Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) and another who said such health networks provide substandard care.

She heard pleas for a national health care system, for price controls, for access to marijuana for an AIDS patient in pain.

And she heard from Beverly Chapman of Orlando, Fla., a quadriplegic who perhaps most poignantly -- and inadvertently -- reminded the policy-makers and health care experts on the panel that they don't always understand the needs and woes of real people.

When asked by the moderator, Dr. Steven A. Schroeder, president of the non-profit Johnson foundation, if she could stand up while she was speaking, Ms. Chapman, seated in the back of the audience, said, "No, I can't. I'm in a wheelchair."

Mrs. Clinton is nearly halfway to her May deadline for drafting a blueprint to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Accompanied by Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore, and Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, the first lady sat through five hours of stories, advice, suggestions and pleadings from Florida residents and health care professionals.

Mrs. Clinton began by saying she hoped to hear "every point of view, every opinion, every variation on the theme."

Several dozen heart-wrenching stories later, she concluded, "On nearly every speaker's point there are at least two or three other ways of looking at what was said. . . . I don't know that it is possible to satisfy every need we heard today."

Revealing little about the plan her task force has been devising, Mrs. Clinton scribbled notes, nodded along with speakers and occasionally weighed in with dry, perfunctory questions:

"Why do you think your program works?" "What is the average cost of those policies?"

But she clearly took pains to prove herself informed and neighborly, much as her husband does at the up-close-and-personal appearances that have become a hallmark of the Clinton administration.

When Ms. Chapman, speaking with the help of a respirator, told of her own experience with health care costs, Mrs. Clinton made clear she remembered the Orlando resident from a previous meeting.

"Y'know, she drove herself in her van to Little Rock, so I know she gets around," the first lady said.

Yesterday's forum came on the heels of a court ruling earlier this week requiring any fact-finding meetings of her high-level task force to be held in public.

Some in the Tampa Convention Center audience of about 300 went away unimpressed.

And some Tampa residents were angered that they had not been selected by the Johnson foundation and were barred from attending the hearing.

Some, like James Holmes, founder of the Judeo-Christian Health Clinic in Tampa, were convinced the White House already had a plan for health care reform and was now engaging in pure public relations tactics.

"I hope this is not going to be something where they raise expectations and then it falls apart," said Mr. Holmes.

But yesterday's forum was high in promotional value.

It is to be followed by a similar meet-the-people session Monday in Des Moines, Iowa, and then in Michigan and Washington, D.C., the following week.

Mrs. Clinton is the self-declared premier salesman for a reform plan that is expected to feature a basic benefits package for all Americans through HMO-style networks. She said her task force was working around the clock receiving, analyzing and responding to 30,000 pieces of mail and phone calls.

And she reiterated many of the themes -- preventive care, controlling costs, the need for change -- that she's made at similar field trips around the country.

The first lady laughed when Gary Strack, head of the Orlando Regional Medical Center, said he'd brought a gift for her -- a set of Russian frog dolls -- since he equated grappling with health care with swallowing frogs.

"My husband has collected frogs for a long time, and I will gladly take this back with the advice that he's gonna have to swallow some more big ones," the first lady said. "He's gonna tell me he's croaking about all he can, but I'm gonna tell him there's somebody in Florida ready to be there with him."

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