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Clinton Unveils Plan to Expand Medicare by Additional 1 Million

By Judith Havemann
and Helen Dewar
The Washington Post

President Clinton Tuesday proposed the largest expansion of Medicare in a quarter century, offering early retirees at age 62 and displaced workers as young as 55 the opportunity to buy coverage under the government's health care program for the elderly.

The plan, which must be approved by Congress, is designed to make health insurance available to millions of potential retirees age 62 up to 65 and another 700,000 dislocated workers 55 and older who either can't afford or lack access to comprehensive health care.

In order to receive the Medicare benefits, the early retirees would be required to pay a premium of roughly $300 a month, and for those who involuntarily lose their jobs the tab would be $400. In part because of the costs, the administration estimates that only about 300,000 of the millions who would be eligible will actually take advantage of the offer.

A separate component of the proposal would target people who retired early but were left uninsured when employers reneged on promises to provide them health insurance.

Prominent Republicans and many business leaders immediately criticized Tuesday's Medicare initiative as fiscally imprudent at a time when the long-term solvency of the entire Medicare system is in jeopardy.

"When your mother is on the Titanic and it's sinking, your first preoccupation ought not to be getting more people on the Titanic," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, chairman of the Finance Committee's subcommittee on health.

But the more circumspect response of Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., suggested that the political popularity of the plan in an election year may make it difficult for the Republicans to dismiss it out of hand. Roth said only that Clinton had highlighted an important health care issue and that he is eager to see more details.

Administration officials contend that the new proposal would not add significantly to Medicare's costs because the new enrollees would pay premiums that would cover their costs over time.