Clinton Seeks To Sway Minds On Reform

February 19, 1994|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a telling moment of frustration, President Clinton lashed out this week at "Harry and Louise," characters in a TV ad campaign attacking the Clinton health reform plan.

The exasperated president complained to an audience of senior citizens in New Jersey that the ads used actors and "never put any real people on there."

If that sounded like whining, perhaps it was because Mr. Clinton and the White House seem at wit's end in trying to sell their health plan to unenthusiastic groups such as the elderly, who had been counted on for support. The Clinton plan holds out such plums as long-term care and prescription drug coverage in Medicare, the senior citizen health program.

"Mistakes" have been made, such as not responding effectively to the "Harry and Louise" ads, a senior administration official who works on health reform acknowledged this week. But convinced that there is time to turn around the polls -- which show most Americans don't favor the plan -- the White House launched an offensive this week.

The president, Hillary Rodham Clinton and most of the Cabinet fanned out across the country to woo the reluctant seniors. With congressional subcommittees scheduled to begin writing health reform legislation within two weeks, the administration's strategy is to sustain a broad public relations and grass-roots campaign while quietly lobbying lawmakers.

Mr. Clinton and his wife will lead the public effort, while newly hired Harold Ickes, a Democratic activist who engineered Mr. Clinton's win in the New York presidential primary in 1992, will work on Capitol Hill.

Part of the White House's problem with Congress has been the poor relationship between lawmakers and Ira Magaziner, the presidential friend and adviser who oversaw the drafting of the health plan. With Mr. Ickes now in place, Mr. Magaziner will remain at the White House, working on details of the plan.

But just as Mr. Magaziner's simmering troubles with lawmakers were allowed to continue, the administration didn't move quickly to blunt the insurance industry's ad campaign. "I think we were somewhat slow in responding to that," conceded the senior administration official.

This official attributed such problems partly to a "lack of coordination" in the administration on health reform and a diversion of energy and time caused by "a full agenda" of other issues, including the budget and the North American Free Trade Agreement last year.

But the insurers' ad campaign has been running at full speed since Labor Day. The Health Insurance Association of America spent $10 million in 1993 and $4 million so far in 1994. An association spokesman, Richard Coorsh, said the ads are scheduled to end tomorrow, but he did not rule out the possibility of further advertising.

"Harry and Louise" skewer one of the controversial features of the Clinton plan -- the health "alliances" that would collect premiums from employers, workers and the government, and negotiate coverage with insurers.

The plan would have employers pay 80 percent of the insurance premiums of their workers and dependents. All Americans would be guaranteed a package of benefits, including payment of doctor, hospital and prescription drug bills.

Charging that the Clinton plan would force people "to buy health insurance through untested government agencies run by tens of thousands of new bureaucrats," the ads created public doubts and underscored the numbing complexity of the 1,342-page Clinton plan.

Mr. Clinton had effectively cut through the details when he announced the plan in a speech to the nation in September, emphasizing easy-to-digest principles such as "health security" -- the idea that coverage can never be taken away. But opponents have deepened the public's confusion by criticizing complex features of the plan, such as the health alliances.

"The size of this bill, the size of the problem, militates against keeping control of a message," the administration official said. White House aides also blame the many interest groups that have spent money on negative campaigns against the plan.

Barred by law from using taxpayer funds for ads, the White House has called on the Democratic National Committee for help. But the Democrats' chief party organization has spent only a paltry $32,000 on health reform ads.

While more advertising is a "definite possibility," said committee spokeswoman Catherine Moore, the group will focus on "building on the grass-roots level." She said a strong community-based effort is already in place, including a "speakers' program" of party activists available to talk at public forums about the president's plan.

But there's scant evidence of this kind of local campaign, says Harvard University Professor Robert J. Blendon, a leading expert on public attitudes toward health reform. "I don't think in a lot of places these grass-roots organizations exist," he said. "The speakers' bureau has not yet hit the talk shows, and that's what they need to do."

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