Health Reform Haggling Begins Administration Rushes to Offer Concessions

Article excerpt

The White House offered concessions Wednesday on the scope of its health reforms, only hours after President Bill Clinton said he would sign no bill that did not provide universal coverage.

Still hoarse from Tuesday night's State of the Union address, the president canceled a speech Wednesday at a local school on doctors' orders to recover his voice.

But his surrogates wasted no time making conciliatory sounds:

Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen told business leaders that Clinton was willing to allow more big companies to run their own insurance programs rather than being forced into the regional alliances where most Americans would have to buy their insurance.

White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said that, while Clinton stands firm on universal coverage, the timetable for achieving it is "something that has to be worked out."

The president met with House Democratic leaders to plan strategy for the struggle over Clinton's health-care proposal and a half-dozen competing bills. Emerging from that meeting, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said, "It's possible you will have some kind of a phase-in" of universal coverage.

Bentsen acknowledged that big business has problems with Clinton's proposal to force all companies with up to 5,000 employees into regional insurance-purchasing alliances.

"You think the 5,000-employee threshold . . . is too high," he told the National Association of Manufacturers and a pension group. "We hear you. We're willing to discuss this one and the other details of our plan.

"We got the concept right, but the president couldn't have been more clear when he said we're open for discussion on this as well as other issues."

But Bentsen said he was troubled by suggestions that only companies with 100 or fewer workers should be in the pools. That would be too small to spread the risk around, he said.

Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the timetable for achieving universal coverage "is open to friendly negotiation with the president." The Clinton bill would require all Americans to be covered by Jan. 1, 1998.

Other Democrats welcomed the stick Clinton raised over their heads - his threat to veto a bill without universal coverage:

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., said at a news conference that Clinton had added "some steel to our spine."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, recalled that when his son, Teddy Jr., was battling cancer, the senator met parents struggling to pay huge medical bills for their own children. …