Clintons appeal to elderly to back health care reform

February 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

EDISON, N.J. -- President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, began an aggressive effort yesterday to pitch their health care proposal to older Americans, whose backing of their proposal to overhaul the existing system has been more tepid than expected.

Unlike either of its main rivals, the Clintons' proposal would extend current Medicare coverage to provide long-term care and prescription drugs, and Mr. Clinton called attention to that distinction yesterday in appealing for support from the elderly.

"The time has come to be counted, to stand up, to take a stand and to fight with us if you want to get something done," the president said at a forum sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons. "This is a fight, and if you want it, you're going to want to have to fight for it."

But the one-two salesmanship by the president and the first lady to 2,000 older Americans at Middlesex Community College here yesterday afternoon reflected a recognition by the White House of the misgivings still felt by the elderly -- even though the benefits to them are more evident than for most segments of the population.

The 32 million-member association has been an important supporter of the president's plan, though it has not formally endorsed it. A survey done for the group last month found that more than half of Americans 50 years and older either opposed the Clinton plan or did not know whether to support it, and White House officials concede that the plan stands little chance unless the elderly give it strong support.

In beginning to fight back harder against critics of the plan, Mr. Clinton took his first swipe yesterday at the "Harry and Louise" television commercials sponsored by the insurance industry. Deriding their characters as actors, the president introduced four New Jersey residents who had written to the White House about their health problems. He said their experiences reinforced his argument the Medicare system is inadequate.

"These are people you will never see in television ads," Mr. Clinton said. "But they are real people with real problems that need to be addressed."

After the speech, one of the four, Helen Kallos of Fort Lee, N.J., seemed heartened.

"I feel pretty good he's going to do something about it," she said of her concern about current restrictions that allow Medicare to pay for her 82-year-old mother, bedridden with arthritis, to stay in a nursing home but do not allow payment of $65 a day for home health care.

Arthur Paranto, a 69-year-old retired Gloucester County social service worker, said the president's speech had encouraged him in his fight to get federal help to pay for his $1,200-a-year prescription bill.

"I don't represent just me in this," Mr. Paranto said. "I know millions of others are in the same boat."

The joint appearance by the Clintons yesterday was their first at a health-care event since Oct. 28. The association paid for a satellite link that made the proceedings available to television stations nationwide, and White House officials hoped that it would be picked up in regions with large numbers of elderly people.

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