Lawmakers still jittery over White House prescription



WASHINGTON (AP)—Hillary Rodham Clinton’s soothing testimony about health reform didn’t lay to rest all the concerns of lawmakers about whether the White House prescription will really cure America’s health problems.

Doubts persist about whether President Clinton will be able to deliver on his promise of big savings and expensive new health benefits for the young and old.

‘‘We learned she’s one helluva witness,’‘ said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., the chairman of the Ways and Means health subcommittee. ‘‘The president’s goals are marvelous. But there’s a long way between where this country is today and universal access and coverage.’‘

Many Republicans fear that the White House blueprint would only make matters worse in a country with 15 percent of its population uninsured despite spending $900 billion a year on health care.

They question whether Clinton will really be able to find enough savings to pay for such promises as prescription drugs for the elderly and an 80 percent government subsidy to provide fully health coverage for early retirees at age 55.

‘‘What a bonanza!’‘ Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., told Mrs. Clinton at the Senate Finance Committee.

Mrs. Clinton assured him it would cost just $4.5 billion and put American corporations now saddled with steep health bills for superannuated workers in a better position to compete against the Japanese and other rivals overseas.

There have been other estimates that it might cost $10 billion. And a skeptical Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas told the American Medical Association, ‘‘We get estimates as high as $80 billion’‘ for the cost of covering early retirees. How can the nation afford it, he asked.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, questioned whether the Clinton numbers could pass ‘‘a reality check.’‘

The White House health team may have done its best on the numbers, ‘‘but I would still bet a dime to a dollar they’re wrong’‘ based on the history of errant government forecasts, said Moynihan.

Clinton’s yet-to-be-introduced health plan is not the only game in town.

Eighty-nine House Democrats and five senators are backing a bill to abolish private insurance and let the government raise taxes to pay all medical bills.

Several dozen moderates from both parties will make a push this week for pure ‘‘managed competition’‘ and a less regulatory approach to health reform. They include Sens. David Durenberger, R-Minn., and John Breaux, D-La., and Reps. Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.

Conservative Republicans have no faith at all in the Clinton health plan and its promise of coverage for all by 1997 and medical inflation cut in half within five years.

‘‘All of this is contingent on the federal government running the health care system … more efficiently, cutting red tape,’‘ said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, on CNN’s ‘‘Crossfire’‘ last Thursday. ‘‘I mean, who are we kidding?’‘

Another conservative, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., agreed. ‘‘It is not a question of whether Bill Clinton is a good speechmaker or whether Hillary Clinton is a good witness,’‘ he said Sunday on NBC’s ‘‘Meet the Press.’‘ ‘‘The question is… read what they are saying in their plan. It is an atrocity and it is unbelievable how bad it is, and for 10 days now, the city of Washington has been gaga over personality when it should be investigating the plan.’‘

Notwithstanding Mrs. Clinton’s five-committee marathon and further testimony scheduled this week before Ways and Means and Senate Finance by Health Secretary Donna E. Shalala, the Clinton bill is not yet finished.

The Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget and Ira C. Magaziner are still massaging the administration’s numbers, and the White House will only say that it hopes to send a bill up this month, possibly in two weeks.

‘‘We really haven’t had a chance yet to put forward our full case on this,’‘ said Kevin Anderson, a White House health care spokesman. ‘‘We recognize it’s going to take a while to make the case.’‘

Anderson added that the administration was ‘‘at a slight disadvantage because the numbers questions have been out there three weeks longer than we anticipated’‘—ever since the leak of its 239-page draft summary.

The American Medical Association already has fired some heavy volleys at the Clinton plan. Dr. Lonnie Bristow, chair of the AMA, said Clinton ‘‘is prescribing some pretty stiff new medicine. And we’re worried that no one really knows what the side effects are going to be.’‘

Polls have found the public by 2-to-1 margins support Clinton’s call for fundamental health reforms.

But Stark says that sentiment could quickly turn as special interest groups wage million-dollar ad campaigns attacking reform and the public starts feeling ‘‘confused and bamboozled.’‘

‘‘The president’s told the American people that they’re not going to have to pay anything’‘ except higher tobacco taxes, said Stark, who favors expanding Medicare to cover everyone at a cost of $60 billion.

‘‘If the president thinks there is enough of a health care fairy out there to put the $60 billion under his pillow as a result of cost savings … he’s being badly advised,’‘ he said.