Health care reform effort launched


September 17, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau Staff writer Carl M. Cannon contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- One week before President Clinton formally unveils his plan to reform the nation's health care system, the White House launched its crusade to sell the plan to the public yesterday, unleashing its key salespeople all over town like an army of Amway representatives.

There was Mr. Clinton at a hardware store, talking about the effect of his plan on small businesses, and earlier, in the Rose Garden with ordinary people who had written letters about their health care woes.

There was Vice President Al Gore speaking to state and local officials. And there was Small Business Administration chief Erskine Bowles briefing reporters.

Perhaps most notably, there was Hillary Rodham Clinton re-emerging as a front person for the health care sales campaign -- in fact, the front person -- after months of crafting the proposal behind closed doors.

While the White House will be pushing health care reform with everything from bus trips to teleconferences, it is relying most on the heart and mind and voice of the first lady.

In her hands is nothing less than a plan for restructuring one-seventh of the nation's economy -- a mission that may well define her husband's presidency.

"She is as vital to this as James Baker was to any initiative George Bush or Ronald Reagan ever attempted," said Laura Quinn, press secretary to Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, one of the White House's chief supporters in health care reform.

Yesterday, Mrs. Clinton joined her husband and the Gores for the White House talk with 21 Americans, a small sampling of the 700,000 who've written letters to her since she assumed the chair of the president's health reform task force. Later in the day, she delivered the keynote address at the Congressional Black ++ Caucus' health care workshop.

And in the next days, weeks and months, Mrs. Clinton, who has emerged as an especially empathetic sort of saleswoman, will be beating the health care drum on the road, on television, on Capitol Hill.

"She is by far the best spokesperson they have," said John Rother, legislative affairs director for the American Association of Retired Persons who heads a broad coalition of business, labor and medical groups in support of reform.

Big travel schedule

Today, embarking on what is expected to be a heavy travel schedule, Mrs. Clinton spends the day in Minnesota, giving speeches, touring clinics, holding a statewide televised town meeting. Monday, she is the key presenter at the administration's "Health Care University," a daylong workshop for House and Senate members.

Mr. Clinton will also be pushing the plan in appearances all over the country. Yesterday, the president met with small-business owners, who fear they will be bankrupted by paying health insurance premiums for their employees.

While the president knows exactly how much is riding on the success of his health care initiative, he'll be juggling the health care crusade with other pressing issues. His wife, by contrast, will focus solely on pushing health reform through Congress -- for however long that takes.

Having kept a low profile since the spring, she is expected to start appearing on TV shows once the plan is released on Wednesday, and she is considering a one-hour appearance on the premiere of Larry King's CNN weekend show Oct. 2.

What's more, in a highly unconventional move, Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to be the lead witness before a joint meeting of the Senate Finance and Labor and Human Resources committees Sept. 28.

"This is definitely further extending the boundaries of what first ladies do," said first lady historian Lewis Gould, noting that Rosalynn Carter testified once before a Senate subcommittee on mental health issues and that Eleanor Roosevelt sat in the audience sewing at congressional hearings in 1939.

In contrast to the sparks she ignited during the presidential campaign, Mrs. Clinton has proven a reassuring figure to voters, according to polls, particularly to Republican-leaning women and senior citizens, the groups most nervous about preserving quality and choice of doctors. Voters responded, too, to the devotion Mrs. Clinton displayed as her father grew ill and died last spring.

At yesterday's Rose Garden session, she kept her comments on a personal level and looked on solemnly as letter-writers told their tales.

"I didn't know much about this when my husband asked me to start working on it, and I really did not believe that the kinds of life decisions that we've heard about -- whether to have a child, where to go to work, whether you can be with your daughter -- would be affected by health insurance," she said.

Afterward, she greeted each participant, sometimes with a pat on the shoulder, always with soothing words.

She told patent examiner Shelly Cermak, a Baltimorean who has multiple sclerosis, that she had some friends who have MS, one of whom had a successful law practice.

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