Rush to reform health care makes many voters leery



MOUNT AIRY, N.C. -- Van Tucker, who grows tobacco a few miles from here, recognizes that he is paying something extra for his health insurance to cover treatment for those who don't have any protection now. But he would rather pay extra than take the chance on change dictated by the government.

"I'd rather keep what I've got even if I'm paying for somebody else," he said. "What's the rush, anyway? Why don't they let it slide until they can study it."

Just outside Winston-Salem, 35 miles down the road, Bertie Williams, a 61-year-old cook, has similar doubts. "I think they have the best of intentions," she said, "and I need more coverage than I've got now, which is next to nothing. But it seems like these federal programs never turn out the way they were supposed to, so I wonder why they can't take it a little slower to make sure."

Tucker and Williams are not alone in their reservations. Conversations with 30-odd voters in North Carolina's Piedmont suggest two points on which there is a huge gulf between public opinion and opinion inside the Beltway in Washington.

First, White House and congressional leaders believe that the health care issue has been studied to death for years and that it is now time to choose among the options for reform. But many voters -- some polls suggest a clear majority -- believe that the White House and Congress are moving too fast on an issue that needs more study.

To some degree, this feeling is a reflection of what voters see on their television screens every night -- pictures of the politicians dealing with the question with crisis-level urgency.

"I don't know what's the big rush all of a sudden," said Tom Halloran, a medical technician from Raleigh passing through Mount Airy. "This is a complicated matter and it deserves careful attention, but all we see is people going in and out of meetings making all these decisions."

Secondly, leaving aside the question of how urgent the problem may be, there is a pervasive skepticism about the ability of the government to produce an effective plan that doesn't cost heavily in new taxes.

"We don't know what they're going to do about taxes," a lawyer in Winston-Salem said. "We know they are going to put something more on tobacco, but that won't cut it. Somebody's going to have to pay, and nobody knows who pays how much."

Few voters seem to have any grasp of the political imperative driving the White House and Democratic leadership in Congress to try getting the health care issue settled before the Nov. 8 election because the next Congress is likely to be more conservative and even harder to sell on a program.

"If you have to rush it through because it won't stand the test of time, then there's something wrong with the whole thing," said Evan Reed, who works for a textile company near here. "This is not supposed to be a political issue, that's what the president keeps saying every night."

The concern in the Piedmont is heightened, of course, by the heavy reliance on tobacco and the prospect of higher taxes on cigarettes that could cost jobs and cut prices for tobacco growers. As Chuck Jordan, a prominent tobacco auctioneer near Winston-Salem, put it, "You can't pay $60,000 for a tractor and grow broccoli and cucumbers, you know."

But conversations with voters indicate that their immediate and direct self-interest is not as influential as their skepticism about government in general and President Clinton in particular.

"I thought Mr. Clinton was going to be a big improvement over Bush when I voted for him," said Angela Wills, a secretary. "Most black people thought he would be much better, and maybe he is because at least he's trying. But he can't seem to get anything done."

A Democratic activist, speaking privately, put it his way: "We had lot of doubts about Clinton when we elected him, but we put them aside because it was important to elect a Democrat. But he couldn't win here today because all the doubts have turned out to be well-founded. He could never win here again, there's no way."

Voters here are not necessarily representative of the national electorate, of course. But what they have to say about the president and Congress sounds very much like what the national polls are finding -- that they have serious doubts about whether ++ health care reform is an issue whose time has come.

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