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GOP, Democrats Both Take Credit for Health Care Bill

Congress: Republicans say measure approved by House is direct descendant of their reform plan. Clinton allies counter that president got ball rolling.

August 02, 1996|MARLENE CIMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With lawmakers of both parties trying to take credit, the House overwhelmingly approved health care reform legislation Thursday that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said would relieve "the largest single anxiety of working middle-class Americans."

The House voted, 421 to 2, to adopt the measure. The Senate is expected to approve it today and send it to President Clinton, who told reporters Thursday that he is eager to sign it into law.

The legislation, which would take effect next July 1, would require insurers to make coverage available to any person who leaves a job and seeks to buy an individual policy.

The bill also would permit insurers to deny health coverage for only 12 months for a preexisting medical condition diagnosed or treated in the previous six months.

Other provisions of the bill would allow self-employed individuals to deduct 80% of their insurance costs by the year 2006--up from the current 30%--and would give a tax break for long-term health care.

House-Senate conferees eliminated provisions that would have required insurers to provide the same level of coverage for mental disorders as they do for other health problems. The decision means that insurers can continue their current practice of providing a much narrower range of mental health benefits.

House approval came amid a flurry of legislative activity as election-year politics and the fear of continued voter complaints of gridlock pushed lawmakers to resolve partisan differences.

"Let us for once talk about our system working," said Rep. Bill Archer, the Texas Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee.

Nonetheless, both sides scrambled to make political points by taking responsibility for the health care bill, which would affect large numbers of people.

Republicans lauded the bill as a triumph of the GOP-led Congress, calling it a direct descendant of a Republican-sponsored alternative to a more ambitious package offered by Clinton. "This is the week that we can make the legitimate claim that this is the most significant Congress in a generation," Gingrich said.

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on health, noted that Clinton was unable to pass any health care reform measures during the first two years of his administration when Democrats "owned both the House and the Senate as well as the White House."

Democrats insisted that the bill would not have passed without the momentum established by Clinton's unsuccessful health care reform initiative of 1993 and 1994. They argued that the principles initially put forth by Clinton were at the heart of the current bill.

While the legislation is not as far-reaching as that proposed by Clinton, the reforms to improve insurance portability and protection against discrimination for preexisting conditions were "two popular and fundamental parts of the Clinton package," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Waxman, a member of the conference committee, called the legislation "a modest step" that "will help a lot of people who can afford to buy health insurance."

However, he complained, "it doesn't do anything for people who can't afford it or don't have it available to them."

The mammoth health care reform package proposed by Clinton three years ago did address those areas, but many lawmakers and the medical and insurance industries objected because it would have required all employers to offer health insurance and would have created a new federal regulatory role.

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) called the bill "a final sad stumble" toward health care reform, but acknowledged: "It's the very best bill the president can get out of a very bad Congress."

Some analysts have estimated that 25 million people a year could benefit from having "portable" health insurance, while as many as 80 million people have ailments that could subject them to exclusion from coverage because of preexisting conditions.

Laurie Flynn, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said lawmakers "left us out. You shut the door on American families who face severe and disabling brain disorders. You betrayed us."

Insurance companies and House Republicans who vehemently opposed the mental health requirement argued that it would drive health care costs up sharply.

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