Clinton offers health care prescription President wants health insurance to be every American's right CLINTON'S HEALTH PLAN

September 23, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon and John Fairhall | Carl M. Cannon and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau Staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, asserting that the nation's health care system is "badly broken," embarked last night on a passionate, personal effort to convince his fellow Americans that the nation must make health insurance the right of all Americans.

"Millions of Americans are just a pink slip away from losing their health insurance," the president said in a nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress. "We must make this our most urgent priority, giving every American health security -- health care that can n ever be taken away, health care that is always there."

Promising to turn "the costliest and most wasteful health care system on the face of the earth" into "a monument to healing -- and not to paperwork and bureaucracy," the president challenged Congress to agree not to go home next year until this problem is solved.

Mr. Clinton, who regards health care reform as the defining issue of his presidency, adopted a persona he played so well during last year's campaign -- that of a national policy teacher. He explained patiently and in language easily accessible to ordinary Americans why things are not working -- and how he believes they can be made better.

He peppered his 53-minute address with evocative horror stories of how the health care system has failed ordinary Americans. He cited the example of Kerry Kennedy, a furniture store owner in Titusville, Fla., who last year "painfully discovered he could no longer provide coverage for all his workers because his insurance company told him two of his workers had become high risk because of their advanced age."

They were his mother and father, the people who had started the business, the president said in hushed tones.

There was more than simple poignancy to these stories, too.

Mr. Clinton's examples were carefully chosen to court the powerful constituencies that are most skeptical of his plan: the elderly, doctors and small business owners. The president did, however, continue to hammer away at the administration's two favorite health care bogeymen: insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry.

Holding aloft a copy of his proposed national "health security card," which was emblazoned with the seal of the United States, Mr. Clinton defined the benefits the card would guarantee.

With this card, no worker would face the possibility of losing health insurance coverage if he or she is laid off or changes jobs, the president said. No one would be dropped from a policy by an insurance company because a worker or family member gets old, sick or has a "pre-existing" condition. No insurance regulations could discourage preventive treatment such as well-baby visits, mental health counseling and regular checkups.

"You know how our mothers said, 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure'?" the president said. "Well, our mothers were right."

Mr. Clinton referred to his mother one other time, noting she was a nurse and that he grew up around health care providers. Nurses and doctors, Mr. Clinton said, "are what is right" about the current system.

What is wrong, he said, is the $200 billion wasted on paperwork, overcharging, price-gouging, unnecessary medical procedures, lack of simple competition and the view of many Americans that they should get a free ride.

Unlike his State of the Union address, in which he called for "shared sacrifice" to solve the nation's economic problems, the health care reform Mr. Clinton outlined last night was all gain and very little pain.

The president glided over the issue of higher premiums for small businesses and healthy young families. He avoided altogether any mention of the new National Health Board, the federal bureaucracy that would be created under his system. And he insisted that the plan would not require any "broad-based" new taxes.

Despite being interrupted 34 times by applause, including four standing ovations, these omissions did not go unnoticed by Republican leaders, who mentioned them in their response, which followed Mr. Clinton's speech.

"We support much of what he says . . . but we are concerned with a Washington-mandated, one-size-fits-all program [that are] state-run monopolies," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican. "Americans wants more choices, not more mandates."

Despite these differences, Mr. Clinton openly appealed to Republicans for their support, which will be crucial if his plan is to pass.

The president also praised his wife, who presided over the task force that devised the plan Mr. Clinton will submit to Congress sometime next month. Saying that when he started out on health care reform he knew he needed a "talented navigator . . . with a caring heart," Mr. Clinton pointed to the first lady, smiled and said to instantaneous applause from members of Congress that, fortunately for the country, he hadn't had to look very far.

Overarching principles

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