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Conservatives Say Clinton Health Care Bill Needs Major Surgery : Politics: Succession of mostly Republican speakers at town hall meeting criticize President's package as too reliant on bureaucrats and a potential disaster. Most prescribe pared-down alternatives.


BUENA PARK — With President Clinton campaigning to rescue his health care reform package, conservatives gathered here Saturday in a mostly Republican-led effort to rally opposition.

A parade of speakers from Sacramento, Dallas and Washington characterized the Clinton plan as a potentially disastrous bid to cover only 2.5% of the population that is chronically without medical insurance while lowering the standard of care for everyone else.

"We're going to have a bitter battle over health care," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who co-sponsored the town hall meeting held in the Sequoia Center. "The big question is, who will be running the show? I'm not inclined to put one-seventh of the nation's economy in the hands of bureaucrats."

Royce complained that the Clinton health bill now before Congress will produce a "top-down welfare state approach to health care."

He cited provisions that would allow a national board to determine how many medical students would be allowed in certain medical specialties, price controls on pharmaceuticals that don't take into account how many new drugs are developed but never make it to market, and limits on choice of doctors. Royce also cited long waits for some types of care and surgeries in Canada, which is often held up as a model for universal health coverage.

Royce, who moderated the town hall meeting, said he favors reforms less ambitious than the Clinton plan, such as making medical benefits stable and portable for people who change employers, elimination of exclusions for pre-existing conditions, a 100% tax deduction for medical insurance premiums, and creation of medical savings accounts that can refund unused cash and earned interest each year if employees don't spend all of the money in their accounts.

Nobody spoke in favor of the Clinton plan, or for anything resembling it.

Clinton has said his plan should be given a chance to work before politician opponents and special interest groups dismantle it. And he has argued that some of the government controls included in the plan are necessary to keep doctors and hospitals from using often costly, unnecessary medical tests and procedures for simple medical problems.

Michael D. Tanner of the conservative Cato Institute in Washington, one of several speakers who addressed about 200 people who attended the town hall meeting, told horror stories about patients in Canada who had died while waiting months, if not years, for severely restricted cardiac and cancer operations. He predicted that U.S. health care would be similar under Clinton's plan.

Congress, said Tanner, would have the power to determine which medical procedures would be covered by health insurance, making the entire process political.

Tanner complained that traditional choose-your-own-doctor options won't be available because the Clinton plan allows health alliances to stop offering them if their costs grow too much.

And Tanner criticized some Republicans in Congress for not resisting the temptation to pass less-onerous versions of the same legislation, which he called "Clinton Lite."

Some speakers said they were nonpartisan, but bashed Clinton and the Democrats anyway. One said he was only quoting from the Clinton legislation and wasn't giving his own opinions, but then did so frequently, criticizing provisions that would pay for abortions and would provide care in some instances to people in the work force who aren't U.S. citizens.

"This isn't a race issue," said the speaker, Michael D. Pettengill of the Sacramento-based Capitol Resource Institute, but whether "you want your money to pay for a Canadian, a Mexican or someone from France."

Few in the audience challenged the panelists.

One woman, who sells insurance, told the gathering that while medical savings accounts are logical, "the MTV generation elected Bill Clinton, and medical savings accounts are not a feel-good kind of thing."

And psychologist Bruce Webster complained that managed-choice types of medical plans can lead to major bureaucratic inefficiencies, including huge administrative costs. For example, he cited Medco chief Martin J. Wygot, who recently paid himself a $30-million salary.

Later, Webster described the town hall meeting as "very anti-Clinton and party-line Republican" but is worried that managed care will "operate unchecked."

"I like the medical savings account idea," Webster added, "but it does not have much support on Capitol Hill."

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