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Clinton Dismisses Health Plan Criticisms

By David Lauter
Los Angeles Times
NORWICH, Conn.

President Clinton shrugged off congressional qualms about his health care plan here Thursday as he participated in another event designed to win support for his reforms among a crucial constituency - the nation's elderly.

Key legislators have said in recent days that large parts of the president's plan lack support on Capitol Hill. Chief among them is the provision creating the mandatory insurance purchasing cooperatives that the administration calls health care alliances.

But Clinton dismissed those concerns as "details" Thursday - saying in remarks to reporters before a speech here that if Congress agrees to his goal of guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans, "we'll work out everything else."

"This is just the beginning," Clinton said, noting the long line of subcommittees, committees and floor debates through which the health plan must travel in the next several months. "I'm not worried."

Faced with continued doubts in Congress, however, the White House has been trying to bolster support within major constituencies and among business groups. As part of that effort, the president and his health care reformists have scheduled two weeks of events designed to persuade the elderly that his plan would benefit them far more than its rivals.

Last week, he traveled to Edison, N.J., to enlist the support of the powerful elderly lobby, the American Association of Retired People.

On Thursday, the president's pitch focused on his plan to expand Medicare benefits to include prescription drug coverage.

Visiting the Greenville Drug Store here, the president met with several elderly customers, listening to the tales of their ailments and the high costs of the drugs they need.

"I've had people break down and cry" in the store because they cannot afford to buy the drugs their doctors say they need, pharmacist John Kiszkiel told Clinton. "I've had people here who told me they had to sell their homes" or chose between buying drugs and paying rent.

The administration included prescription drug coverage as a sweetener it hoped would energize elderly voters and their often-influential lobbyists on behalf of Clinton's proposed reforms. In upcoming events, the president intends to emphasize a second element of his plan - a limited program of assistance for long-term in-home nursing care - that also has considerable appeal for the elderly.

No interest group has been courted more assiduously by the White House than the elderly. And for good reason. The support of groups like the AARP is crucial to congressional enactment of Clinton's bill.