Health care centrists attacked from both sides

June 24, 1994|By Karen Hosler and John Fairhall | Karen Hosler and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The focus of the sprawling health care reform debate narrowed yesterday to seven senators toiling away on a bipartisan compromise and discovering how treacherous the middle ground can be.

Although welcomed by some as a sign of progress, the plan being developed by members of the Senate Finance Committee came under sharp attack both from conservatives who deemed it too costly and from liberals who said it was too stingy.

Families USA, a consumer advocacy group that works closely with the Clinton administration, called the plan a "travesty" for America's middle class. "It would result in millions of families losing health coverage and would reduce the coverage for families that have good coverage today," said its executive director, Ron Pollack.

On the other end of the political spectrum, conservatives such as Paul Merski, an economist for Citizens for a Sound Economy, attacked the compromise effort, led by Rhode Island Republican John H. Chafee, as a prelude to an excessively costly program for universal coverage.

"They'll try a series of tactics and gimmicks . . . to pass something today and worry about the financing tomorrow," Mr. Merski said.

The senators, Finance Committee moderates, are trying to break a committee deadlock that has threatened congressional progress on health reform. With the July 4 recess approaching and Congress scheduled to adjourn for the summer in mid-August, there's little time to reach agreement on such complex legislation.

But the Finance Committee members, who hope to use their plan as a basis for committee action next week, also had trouble agreeing with each other.

They originally numbered eight until Democrat Max Baucus of Montana dropped out yesterday in a dispute over a proposed tax on insurance premiums. After a long day of meetings behind closed doors in Mr. Chafee's private office, the group broke up last night without reaching a final agreement.

While they worked, the House Education and Labor Committee yesterday became the second congressional panel to approve a version of the Clinton plan, adding more than $30 billion in new benefits and subsidies for the poor and for small businesses over five years.

But that measure, like a similar bill passed two weeks ago by the Senate Labor and Human Resources committee, is considered unlikely to

pass because it imposes a heavy burden of new taxes on most employers.

The Senate moderates are trying to break a stalemate in the more conservative Finance Committee by producing a program that relies more heavily on encouraging competition in the insurance market and between health care providers.

The plan aims to provide 95 percent of Americans with health care insurance by 2002. About 85 percent have coverage today.

The broader coverage would result from lower costs because of increased competition, greater availability through market reforms, and subsidies for low-income persons financed by new taxes. If the 95 percent target is not reached by 2002, individuals would be required to buy at least a minimum policy.

Unlike the plan proposed by President Clinton, employers would have no responsibility to pay for insurance for their workers, and there would be no guarantee that all Americans would have a standard package of health care benefits.

But conservative groups that have vigorously attacked the Clinton plan as "big government" and "socialized medicine" weren't satisfied with those concessions.

And Senate GOP Leader Bob Dole of Kansas made attempts to cut the three maverick Republicans who belong to the centrist group off from the rest of the GOP fold. He is drafting his own bill of modest insurance market reforms and made an emotional appeal Wednesday to his colleagues to stick by him.

"Everything is timing around here, and I think it's a little too soon" to be striking a deal with Democrats, Mr. Dole said yesterday.

Neither were liberals satisfied with the compromise. The 37-member Congressional Black Caucus, which supports the type of health care plan approved yesterday by the House Education and Labor committee, warned that its votes should not be taken for granted if the program is sharply pared back. "We wanted to buffer some of the conservative rhetoric coming out of the Senate," said Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the caucus. "Everything is negotiable, but we want people to remember the arithmetic of 37 votes."

And the labor- and consumer-backed group Citizen Action denounced the bill as "an affront to every consumer of health care."

Sen. David L. Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat, joked: "It's the usual place of moderates: fired upon by all sides."

The White House is trying to remain above the fray in pursuit of the larger goal of getting health care reform legislation through the committees and onto the House and Senate floor for debate next month. Once Americans focus on what's at stake in the legislation, administration officials believe, they will press lawmakers to enact a bill close to the original Clinton model.

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