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Clinton Salutes Veterans, Plugs NAFTA, Health Care

By Bill McAllister
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

President Clinton spent his first Veterans Day in office Thursday paying tribute to those who have served in the military and plugging for his health-care-reform plan and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

First at a breakfast meeting with 17 of the special-forces members who served in Somalia, then at Arlington National Cemetery and finally at a veterans hospital in West Virginia, the president wove the health and trade themes into his remarks at solemn ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Clinton twice sought to link the mood of isolationism that followed that conflict to what is happening in the country today as Congress debates the trade agreement. At the breakfast meeting, Clinton said Americans must answer the same questions that faced World War I veterans: "To what extent must America engage with the rest of the world? To what extent can we just stay home and mind our own business?"

Later at Arlington, Clinton posed the question again, noting that with the collapse of communism, a new generation is being asked "whether we will swell the global tide of freedom by promoting democracy and open world markets or neglect the duty of our leadership" by withdrawing.

After laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington, Clinton saluted the 17 Army Rangers by his side, saying they plunged into a "terribly difficult firefight" in Mogadishu on Oct. 3 after a U.S. helicopter was downed in a raid on a Somalian gang suspected of killing members of a U.N. peacekeeping force. Eighteen American troops died in that fight because they wanted to avoid leaving the body of a wounded colleague behind, the president said.

"I want you to let them know that we know that they did their mission well and we are proud of them," Clinton said in leading a standing ovation for the soldiers.

An hour later, Clinton flew to Martinsburg, W.Va., to visit a veterans hospital. The 950-bed facility is a hospital that "any American would be proud to be a part of, to work in, or be a patient in," the president told a gathering of patients and hospital workers.

With its 1,168 employees and its $70.6 million annual budget, the 9-year-old hospital is a Veterans Affairs Department showpiece and a major economic power in Martinsburg.

But the hospital, which last year treated 4,655 veterans as inpatients, faces a new, uncertain future under Clinton's proposal to reform health care. If Congress approves Clinton's plan, the VA hospital would, for the first time, compete directly with the area's two private hospitals for patients because veterans could join private health-care alliances instead of the one offered by the VA hospital.

Clinton sought to assure veterans that their future health care would be secure under the plan. "No veteran in need of health care would ever be turned away from a VA hospital if our plan became law," he told them.

The president did not address whether veterans hosptials in remote locations will be able to survive in what is envisioned in the health plan as a competitive environment. He praised Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, for his leadership of veterans issues but did not mention that last week Rockefeller had to cajole the administration into assuring greater funding for the VA hospitals under the health-care plan.

Thomas H. Weaver, director of the Martinsburg VA facility, said in an interview that he had no doubt about the hospital's future. Veterans from as far away as Warrenton, Va., and Cumberland, Md., would continue to go to Martinsburg for health care, he said. The hospital operates one outpatient clinic in Cumberland and is planning a network of three to five more at a cost of nearly $5 million in order to compete with private health-care providers in the four-state area it serves.

"We feel that there is going to be change in health care," said Weaver. "And, obviously, we're going to be part of that change."