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Storm Gathers over Debate on Clinton Health Care Plane

By Spencer Rich
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

The health care debate took on hurricane force status Thursday, pounding the nation's capital with assertions and counter-assertions and offering a glimpse of what life will be like here in the coming months.

At an American Enterprise Institute conference, Martin Feldstein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration, said the plan would cost the government $120 billion more in 1997 than the White House has estimated. He was joined in his attack on the administration's numbers by Michael J. Boskin, chairman of the economic advisers during the Bush administration, who said that he had "heard nobody outside the administration" who accepts the White House's estimates of the cost of the health plan.

At the same time they were speaking, lobbyists were blitzing the city with faxes about their positions and held more than a dozen news conferences to express their views on the Clinton health plan.

The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association suggested that parts of the president's plan would have a "devastating impact" on patients, mentioning his efforts to "blacklist" new drugs if they are excessively or inappropriately priced."

The Council for Responsible Nutrition contended that the U.S. health care system could save $8.7 billion annually if Americans consumed "optimal levels of the antioxidant vitamins C and E and beta-carotene.

The Coalition to Preserve Health Benefits, which described itself as a group of employers and insurers, said that President Clinton's plan would reduce American's flexibility to choose their benefits, "returning to the one size fits all health care policies of the 1950s and '60s, when male-dominated, single-earner households were the norm."

For its part, the White House staged a rally for 1,100 supporters with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton declaring that this "is not a Democratic or Republican problem. It doesn't have a liberal or conservative solution. It is an American problem that we are going to solve before Congress goes home next year."

The president defended his financing numbers, arguing that "savings in the system" would enable the government to finance the expanded care his proposal would provide. "We must continue to hammer the points of opportunity to save funds so we can do the things we need to do," he said.

As Clinton spoke, more than a dozen of his Cabinet and senior staff were racing from one end of the country to the other to promote the plan. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen was in Pennsylvania touring businesses and hospitals; drug policy director Lee P. Brown was in Kansas City at the University Medical Center; Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown was touring a pediatric ward in Houston. Virtually everyone of senior status was part of the effort to get the news media across the country to spotlight the health care proposals.

At the White House, meanwhile, some 55 radio talk-show hosts were arrayed across the lawn, interviewing administration aides on health care and other issues. Ira Magaziner, one of the architects of the plan, conducted a teleconference briefing with 50 locations around the country.

Clinton laid out the broad outlines of the plan in a passionate hour-long address to Congress on Wednesday, challenging them to act by the end of next year to approve a new health care system that would guarantee health insurance to every American. Under the proposal, employers would pay 80 percent of their workers' average health care premiums and workers would pay the rest. Small companies and poor Americans would get subsidies to pay for their shares.

The plan would guarantee a standard set of minimum benefits to every American, costing the federal government $350 billion more over five years than current federal health care spending. Clinton hopes to get most of that cost from sharply holding down spending on the Medicare and Medicaid programs, boosting cigarette taxes about 80 cents a pack and imposing a surtax on large corporations that set up their own health plan.

Clinton acknowledged Thursday the complexity of his proposal in calling it "mind-boggling," but said its principles, not its detail, would make it understandable to Americans. Clinton aides, listening to the radio talk-show hosts field skeptical, sometimes critical questions, said the skepticism was because of that complexity. "This is a skeptical country," said political adviser James Carville, "We just announced this and now we are here to answer all the questions. There is going to be skepticism until the thing is explained a lot over a long time. It's big. Big."