Clinton might favor delay in health care financing

June 15, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- His health care bill battered by business opposition, President Clinton signaled to key senators yesterday that he's willing to consider alternatives to his formula for requiring employers to pay most of their workers' medical insurance.

Mr. Clinton's one-hour meeting with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., the Senate Finance Committee chairman, and Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., the committee's ranking Republican, provided the faint hope that a compromise was still possible.

Mr. Packwood said the president showed interest in the Oregon Republican's proposal to delay for three years a decision on requiring employers to pay.

In other developments, the House Ways and Means Committee fell in behind Mr. Clinton by voting 20-18 to uphold an insurance requirement on employers. And in remarks to a women's group, Hillary Rodham Clinton raised the possibility that abortion coverage could be dropped to get health reform through Congress.

The Ways and Means vote was seen as critical to that committee's chances of approving a bill under its acting chairman, Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla.

"I think this was the key vote," said Rep. Bob Matsui, D-Calif. "My guess is we will have 20 votes [for the bill] when all is said and done." Four Democrats joined the committee's 14 Republicans in voting against the employer requirement.

Mr. Gibbons said before the vote that if the requirement had been voted down, health care reform for this session of Congress would have been dead.

With an early July deadline for completing committee action, the administration is feeling more pressure than ever to deal with congressional factions. Requiring employers to pay for workers' insurance remains the most contentious issue.

Speaking to reporters outside the White House after his meeting with President Clinton, Mr. Packwood said he had offered a possible solution that caught the president's attention.

Under Mr. Packwood's compromise, Congress would enact reforms to make insurance more affordable and available, and also provide subsidies for workers in small firms. After three years -- if large numbers of Americans were still without health insurance -- the compromise would guarantee a congressional vote on forcing employers to pay for coverage.

Mr. Packwood said he could write the compromise to make the employer requirement automatic, unless Congress votes it down. Senate Democrats said that's closer to the kind of guarantee they're looking for.

White House aides said Mr. Clinton is not backing away from his commitment to coverage for all, but is willing to look at other approaches.

"We're flexible on how you get there, but we're not flexible on the bottom line," said an administration official. A spokeswoman said the administration is not sure that Senator Packwood's proposal is the answer.

"This nation is going to come to universal coverage one day" said Mr. Packwood. "We will come to it in three, four, five years. Is that a long time in the history of the republic?"

Mr. Packwood said he based his proposal on procedures that Congress has successfully used to handle extremely controversial legislation, like major trade agreements and military base closings.

About 39 million people lack health coverage today, most of them in working families. Employees of small businesses are much more likely to be uninsured. Mr. Clinton's plan would require businesses to pay 80 percent of the cost of workers' health insurance, with substantial discounts for small firms.

Mr. Moynihan and Mr. Packwood are key players in health reform by virtue of their positions on the Finance Committee. The health care debate has given Mr. Packwood an opportunity to divert attention from sexual misconduct allegations and re-assert himself on policy matters.

The Finance Committee has a bipartisan tradition, and compromises reached there stand a good chance of passage in the Senate. But right now it's not even clear that the committee will be able to vote out a bill.

"We're going back to put together combinations," said Mr. Moynihan.

While her husband was meeting the two senators, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told the League of Women Voters to expect compromises on a wide range of issues, perhaps even abortion.

"It is very difficult to tell exactly where we are going to have to make whatever compromise, or where it's going to be taken out of our hands and the Congress will basically argue it out," Mrs. Clinton said.

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