- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

Former President Bill Clinton yesterday said he had been "demonized" for trying to change the nation's health care system, and called for an attempt to find a "bipartisan solution" to improve health care in the country.

"I think it's quite interesting that the worst congressional losses that the Democrats suffered in the last 60 years was the midterm for Harry Truman and my first midterm, and it both happened after we tried to fix health care and we were demonized" for trying to have the government pay for it, Mr. Clinton said.

The comments came as part of a wide-ranging health care speech he gave at a conference of health care advocates yesterday in Washington.

Mr. Clinton said leaders and advocates must "try to find a bipartisan solution" to improving health care, because if it becomes "a shouting match" between Democrats and Republicans or between different advocacy groups, there will be "politics as usual, gridlock and no change."

Across town, Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, gave a speech in which he called for universal health coverage to help millions of uninsured Americans an idea he says he wants to be discussed by all 2004 presidential candidates.

"I believe that what we offer today can put America back on the right path towards an America where everyone has health insurance and quality health care," he said in presenting his proposal to the U.S. Conference of Mayors yesterday. "I think it's time to let that debate begin."

Under his proposal, all Americans would acquire a basic insurance package that would be defined by the federal government and similar to the standard benefit packages available to all members of Congress and federal workers. States would have to form pools of people and negotiate with insurance companies on behalf of those pools in order to get low group rates.

Low-income and middle-income Americans would have their insurance premiums partially or fully subsidized by the federal government, and the government also would provide money for the state to set up the pools, if needed. All Americans would be required to get at least a basic level of health insurance.

Mr. Breaux said his plan combines "the best of what government can do with the best of what the private sector can do, along with the added ingredient of individual responsibility for our own health needs in this country."

He said such action is needed because insurance premiums are increasing, the number of small businesses offering health insurance is decreasing, the condition of Medicaid and Medicare is "spiraling downward" and 41 million Americans lack coverage.

Mr. Breaux said "Congress is not ready for this yet, politically," but he wants to get the discussion started.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, said he does not think Congress "is ready for any universal health care proposal, nor do I believe the country is."

He cited the cost and the ability to control and shape such a plan, but noted he had yet to review Mr. Breaux's proposal.

Mr. Breaux did not have a price for his plan, but said it would cost "a lot less than the president's $670 billion tax package, just as a comparison."

Mr. Clinton also touched on the tax-cut topic repeatedly in his speech, saying that Republicans should not give tax breaks to wealthier Americans like himself, and instead help states by increasing the federal contribution to Medicaid and expanding programs like the Children's Health Insurance Program to give coverage to the parents of those children and others.

"We can't do that because they want to give me the money," he said.

Any new tax cut should be short-term and targeted toward middle-income people with high credit-card debt, and small businesses, he said.

Among other things, he also advocated a "workable, affordable" prescription drug benefit, as well as "bolstering" the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Mr. Clinton said improving health care is every bit as important as the war on terror, or issues with Iraq or North Korea.

"We can't just stop trying to make America better," he said.

He touched briefly on foreign affairs as well, saying it is "important" to work through the United Nations in addressing Iraq and "to let these inspectors do their work."

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