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Clintons Thank Health Task Force; Prepare to Finalize Reform Plan

By Marilyn Milloy
Newsday

WASHINGTON

On the South Lawn of the White House Thursday evening, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton offered a farewell thanks to more than 500 "worker bees" who for more than two months have labored -- in secret -- to produce the stuff of which a national health-care reform plan will be formed.

Among them, these federal employees and volunteers have pumped out enough proposals to fill up more than three dozen oversized notebooks. All have been about turning the Clintons' vision for reform into reality.

At the farewell, Mrs. Clinton thanked all those who "pulled these all-nighters and did not leave the Old Executive Office Building for days and days on end."

If it was grueling work for the task force, the current mission before President Clinton -- deciding which proposals to put into a final plan, which to change and which to just leave out -- promises to be downright sticky.

This is the critical homestretch for the White House, and with a self-imposed deadline of May 17 to release a near-final version of the plan, at least, the pace is quickening.

Already the touchy process of getting lawmakers on board has begun, even before the plan officially is sent to Congress. Friday, the entire Senate has been invited to meet with Hillary Clinton, and officials say talks about "real details" will begin there in earnest -- including some of the bigger questions, such as financing a health-care plan, that the administration maintains are far from resolved.

On another front, the White House is charging several groups of outside reviewers -- they call them "contrarians" -- to pore critically over the plan, even as the president mulls options.

The president has pledged a system in which every American, including the 37 million uninsured, would be entitled to a minimum level of coverage, provided through their employers. To get it, most people would join huge regional "health alliances" in which networks of doctors, insurance companies and hospitals would compete for the lowest-cost health plans. All this would happen under a national health budget.

But numerous decisions have yet to be made -- such as what will be in the benefits package; how the budget will be set and what the enforcement mechanism will be; whether there will be price controls, and if so, what kind; whether to assess a flat insurance premium or a percentage of an employee's salary to finance the coverage; and how big a subsidy the federal government will give small businesses to help them pay for insurance.