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Clinton Radio Talk Pushes Goal of Universal Coverage


WASHINGTON — In a radio address that seemed aimed more at Congress than the American public, President Clinton on Saturday defended his goal of universal health coverage and warned of a "last-ditch, special-interest media blizzard aimed at derailing reform and frightening you."

"We have to keep our focus for a few more weeks, so we can win a battle that has been fought for 60 years," Clinton said.

House and Senate Democratic leaders are attempting to fashion, from various committee bills and other alternatives, the health legislation that they will take to their respective chambers. Senate debate could begin as early as this week, with the House expected to begin its deliberations shortly thereafter.

The congressional leaders are trying to preserve Clinton's bottom line of guaranteeing health coverage to all Americans by a fixed date.

But resistance is stiff to Clinton's primary means of achieving that goal: a requirement that employers pay as much as 80% of their workers' health premium costs. Many members of Congress, including some Democrats, are saying that the so-called "employer mandate" will not survive in the Senate.

Instead, with public support for the Clinton plan ebbing, most Republicans and some Democrats are trying to build support for a more modest program that offers incentives for expanded coverage but does not mandate it.

In the GOP response to the President's speech, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) urged just such a "common-sense" approach: "Fix what's broken, don't mess with what works and make time for preventive care."

However, Clinton insisted that "modified half-measures" will not work. Unless everyone is required to be covered, he said, younger and healthier people will opt out of the system, making everyone else's premiums more expensive. And when the uninsured do seek treatment, he added, it will be in the expensive setting of the emergency room.

The President framed the debate as one of historic proportions, as significant as the efforts that produced Social Security and Medicare. He said those programs, too, were criticized as overly bureaucratic, harmful to small business and too expensive.

Clinton noted that this week will mark the popular Medicare program's 29th anniversary.

"The American people made it clear then that they wanted reform, and today, the pen President Johnson used to sign that legislation is mounted in a position of honor in the White House just down the hall from where I'm speaking," Clinton said. "And if you tried to repeal Medicare, members of Congress from both parties would never let it happen."

On Saturday morning, Clinton flew to Hot Springs, Ark., with several former classmates aboard Air Force One, to attend his 30th high school class reunion.

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