Return of Health-Care Reform Prodded by Public Mood of Discontent, Both Parties Tread Carefully Back into Minefield of Health-Care Reform

Article excerpt

Health care looks set to be perhaps the most-discussed domestic issue in Washington this election-year summer.

One reason: The demise of sweeping antitobacco legislation has left both Republicans and Democrats searching for something popular they can do quickly. Health care is an obvious choice for action, as in many polls it rates near the top of late-20th-century US voters' concerns.

This doesn't mean that anything remotely resembling President Clinton's failed health-care-reform bill of 1994 will return to the legislative arena.

Instead, both parties are promoting incremental steps, such as protection of health maintenance organization patients' rights, or more punishment for insurance firms that illegally deny policy coverage.

It does mean that national politicians don't want to be outflanked on the issue. GOP legislators, in particular, are worried about their opponents portraying them as health-reform obstructionists.

"Now that the Republicans have moved into this it will be harder to differentiate among candidates on health care alone," says Robert Blendon, professor at Harvard University's School of Public Health in Boston.

If nothing else, this week's White House agenda points out the timeliness of the health-care issue.

President Clinton had barely returned from his trip to China before he was out in the Rose Garden July 6, pushing new outreach programs intended to make more low-income senior citizens aware of government aid that will help pay part of their Medicare premiums.

Between 3 million and 4 million beneficiaries aren't aware that they're eligible for such aid, Mr. Clinton said. This group is overpaying Medicare by a combined $2 billion a year, he said, citing a study by the organization Families USA.

Then on July 7, the president leaped into another health-care issue, promising to crack down on insurance firms that deny coverage on the basis of preexisting medical conditions. Most such actions are illegal under a 1996 health-insurance law - and firms that get caught will be denied lucrative government business, said Clinton.

Has the nation's chief executive been struck by an urge to impersonate a deputy secretary of Health and Human Services? Not likely. What's going on here, say experts, is that Clinton recognizes the political power of the phrase "health care." Thus he works to personally associate himself with any popular health-care reform the government may take, no matter how small. …