President Clinton on Friday denounced Republicans for playing politics with legislation protecting the rights of patients in the nation's health care system.
"If you go out in the country, this is not a partisan issue, because Republicans get sick just like Democrats. Even stubborn independents sometimes get sick," the president said to a hastily arranged assembly of doctors, medical administrators and county political leaders at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.
"They're not for it, but they know they can't afford to be caught being against it," he said of the Republican leadership.
The Senate is scheduled next week to debate the so-called patients' bill of rights.
The issue is a centerpiece of Clinton's domestic agenda, and it strikes a chord with voters who are growing increasingly anxious and impatient over restrictions imposed by health maintenance organizations and other health care plans.
Some insurers and managed care organizations are in the midst of an aggressive campaign to protect their operations in the face of government regulation and mounting costs.
Clinton favors a plan to guarantee that patients have access to specialists and the closest emergency rooms when necessary. It also would protect patients from being forced to switch doctors in the middle of treatment if the original doctor is dropped by a health plan, and it would increase the rights of patients to appeal decisions by health insurance programs.
A key element, and one not included in a Republican version of the measure, would allow patients to recover financial damages if they are harmed by a health plan's decisions.
The GOP legislation would give consumers less extensive protections. A number of its provisions apply only to the 48 million workers whose employers operate self-insured plans.
Between 150 million and 160 million people purchase non-government health insurance plans through their employers or on their own.
Beyond the greater number of people covered by the Democratic plan, one of the biggest differences between the parties' proposals is over which health services are "medically necessary" and therefore must be covered by a plan.
The Republican bill lets insurance companies or health care plans determine what services are necessary.
The Democratic bill requires that all services be covered if they are consistent with generally accepted principles of medical practice.
Protecting the rights of patients, the president said, "is a systematic problem in American health care." He predicted that if it is corrected "the HMOs will do just fine."
With proponents of Clinton's plan recounting painful and often tragic results from health insurers' denials of treatment, the president said: "This is about whether some people live and some people die.
"I mean, this is a big, big, big issue. And it should not be played out in a partisan political or special-interest atmosphere."
Seemingly rested after a grueling four-day, cross-country tour promoting private business investments in some of the nation's most impoverished communities, Clinton reverted to the sort of chatty, lively, often folksy us-against-them appeal that enlivened his 1992 campaign, even as he accused the Republicans and health care companies of employing a divisive tactic.
He was rewarded with cheers, laughter and, occasionally, the quietly called-out response of, "That's right," that might greet a preacher connecting with his congregation.
"You know, the HMOs say, well, this all sounds very good, but we can't afford it, and if you--and they always try to make you think only of yourself, your healthy self--if you, your healthy self, who never gets sick but has to pay health insurance, give these patients' bill of rights to them--all those sick people--you, your healthy self, will have to pay more for health insurance, and oh, how terrible it will be," he said, catching his breath. "That's their argument, right?"
The protections already given to patients in federal government health plans--similar to those offered by the Democratic plan--have increased the cost of health insurance by $1 per insured per month, Clinton said.
So, the president added, "I'm going to ask every American if he or she wouldn't be willing to pay something in that range on the off chance that their healthy self might not always be that way."
Ethel Edmond, a registered nurse at the Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center emergency room in Los Angeles County, introduced Clinton to about 150 people in the auditorium of Harbor-UCLA. She said that failure to protect patients would leave them exposed to the decisions of health care companies when in need of emergency treatment or in the midst of treatment; times when they are the most vulnerable and anxious.
The president's visit to the hospital was added to his schedule this week when the White House announced that Clinton would extend his visit to Southern California to attend the Women's World Cup soccer championship today in the Rose Bowl before returning tonight to Washington.
Indeed, the event at the hospital was put together so quickly that it was a race to see whether Clinton would arrive before workers finished displaying a backdrop bearing the message, "A patients bill of rights for healthy families," written over an image of the Declaration of Independence. The perpetually tardy president lost.
Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin in Washington contributed to this story.