First lady visits to defend health care

April 19, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher and John Fairhall | Michael A. Fletcher and John Fairhall,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer Norris P. West contributed to this article.

The nurse wanted to know what health care reform would mean for small community hospitals.

The struggling restaurant owner asked how he could squeeze the price tag for health care reform onto an already precarious balance sheet.

And the medical supply salesman and his wife wondered whether the administration's health proposals would allow them to choose their own doctor.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- in Baltimore yesterday for a series of public appearances capped by a town meeting last night at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions -- had an answer for them all.

She said health care reform could save community hospitals. She said health care reform would cost employers more -- but no more than, say, an increase in the minimum wage. And, yes, she said, health care reform would allow people to choose their own doctors.

Mrs. Clinton faced these questions during a meeting yesterday morning with more than 30 people at the Canton Cafe in southeast Baltimore.

The question-and-answer session kicked off a busy day for Mrs. Clinton that also included a trip to a public school run by a private corporation and a reception attended by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and a host of high-powered health care executives at the downtown Omni International Hotel.

Finally, at a "town hall" meeting last night at Hopkins' Turner Auditorium in East Baltimore, Mrs. Clinton delivered a spirited call for health-care reform, warning an audience of 800 people that even Americans with insurance could not count on keeping it unless Congress acts.

The capacity crowd included students, local dignitaries, elected officials, people involved in health care activities and a man with AIDS, who made a moving appeal to Mrs. Clinton during a question-and-answer period. The crowd greeted her with a standing ovation and applauded several of her statements -- beginning with her reminder that President Clinton has vowed not to sign legislation unless it guarantees "health care coverage to every single American."

Mrs. Clinton sought to dispel doubts about the president's reform plan, which is being substantially revised by Congress as lawmakers begin the months-long task of writing health reform legislation. One public suspicion -- that the administration is mainly interested in covering the 39 million uninsured Americans -- isn't true, she said.

"This is something for every American, not just for somebody else," she said, stressing the security of guaranteed coverage. "If you have insurance today, are you sure you will have it for the same price, for the same benefits, this time next year?"

Underscoring the vulnerability of Americans who can't obtain affordable insurance because they have a medical problem, she said: "Any one of us could leave this hall and, God forbid, have an accident. Any one of us could, next week, find a suspicious lump . . . and we would join the 51 million Americans with pre-existing conditions" who can't afford coverage.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat, arranged and moderated the Hopkins meeting. Mrs. Clinton was joined on stage by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and ++ state Sen. Larry Young, all Democrats, and medical experts. The latter included Dr. James Block, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Everard Rutledge, president of Liberty Medical Center in Baltimore.

Audience questions -- screened in advance by Mr. Mfume's aides -- reflected concerns about Alzheimer's disease, mental health insurance benefits, lead poisoning in children, alternative medicine, acquired immune deficiency syndrome and other issues.

The man with AIDS complained that the state medical assistance program, which pays his health care bills, effectively blocks him from ever working because if he did so he'd lose his benefits. He can't afford to buy private insurance.

Mrs. Clinton responded: "That's a perfect example of the absurdity of this system by which people are denied the right to work, or else they lose their eligibility for health care."

Louis Hughes, a resident of Pigtown in South Baltimore, asked how the president's reform proposal would help him care for his 81-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's. Mrs. Clinton said the administration's proposed long-term care program would help people receive treatment at home and in the community and provide relief to people like Mr. Hughes who care for ailing relatives.

"This is a very important issue to us," she said.

Earlier, outside the Canton Cafe, Mrs. Clinton was greeted with applause and flowers from onlookers and a welcoming banner from Father Kolbe School students.

Inside, she was hit with questions from people skeptical about the eventual cost of health care reform.

"What happens to the small-business owners?" asked Don Davis, a registered Republican, restaurant owner and businessman concerned with holding his costs down.

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