STATE OF THE UNION I: Health Care Is The Focus
President Clinton used his annual State of the Union address last night to outline several health care initiatives, including allowing the near elderly to buy into Medicare, expanding federal investment in biomedical research, enacting the $368.5 billion tobacco settlement and ensuring patients' rights for managed care consumers. The New York Times reports, "Two years after he declared the end of the era of big government, Mr. Clinton painted a sweeping landscape of federal activism, from subsidies for care of babies to expansion of the health-care program for the elderly" (Broder, 1/28). Clinton urged Congress to pass his consumer "bill of rights," a measure the AP/Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports is "meant to assure patients access to specialists, broad information about their health plans and the right to appeal denials of care" and to outlaw "discrimination based on genetic information." The president endorsed congressional approval of bipartisan, comprehensive legislation that would "reduc[e] teen smoking, [affirm] the FDA's regulation of nicotine, [hold] tobacco companies responsible for child marketing, improv[e] public health and [protect] the economic well-being of tobacco farmers." In addition, he proposed to increase spending for biomedical research by $1.15 billion, "with financing for the National Institutes of Health increasing by 50% over five years" (1/28).
Vying For Boomer Votes?
Clinton's "signature proposal" was his plan to use every bit of an estimated "$200 billion budget surplus over the next five years to help ensure Social Security solvency for the tens of millions of baby boomers who will soon begin retiring," the Baltimore Sun reports (Cannon/West, 1/28). "Tonight I propose that we reserve ... every penny of any surplus ... to strengthen the Social Security system for the 21st century," the president said (transcript, 1/27). Today's Wall Street Journal reports that "President Clinton's State of the Union address opened what is sure to be years of political jousting for the hearts and minds of aging baby boomers." The president not only promised Baby Boomers that "Social Security will be there" when they retire, but he also "repeated his proposal" to let them "buy health coverage under Medicare" (Harwood/Calmes, 1/28). "Millions of Americans between the ages of 55 and 65 have lost their health insurance. Some are retired. Some are laid off. Some lose their coverage when their spouses retire. After a lifetime of work, they are left with nowhere to turn. So I ask the Congress, let these hard-working Americans buy into the Medicare system. It won't add a dime to the deficit, but the peace of mind it will provide will be priceless," Clinton said last night (transcript, 1/27).
Clinton's contention that the Medicare expansion would not add to program costs "prompted nos and snickers from skeptical Republicans," CongressDaily/A.M. reports (1/28). In the Republican Response to the State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) said, "We protected Medicare. And in that same way, we're going to protect Medicare this year against any changes that would imperil its financial stability" (1/27). The Baltimore Sun reports that "Republicans ... disputed that Clinton could expand Medicare ... without significantly increasing government spending and regulation" (1/28). The Orlando Sentinel reports that Sen. Connie Mack (R-FL) questioned Clinton's Medicare proposal. "To imply you can expand Medicare with no costs, I'm not sure the administration is being truthful. I have some concerns maybe they played with the numbers a little bit" (Lytle, 1/28).
Sen. John Breaux (D-LA), chair of the new Medicare reform commission, said his panel "would be looking at" Clinton's proposal. "That's one suggestion. Our job is to make sure that whatever we do strengthens Medicare for seniors, not weaken it. And we will debate that issue and we'll make a recommendation in March of next year. Hopefully it'll be one that the Congress can enact into law" ("Crossfire," CNN, 1/27). A New York Times editorial notes, "The main flaw of the balanced-budget agreement of last year was that it failed to address the long-term health of the nation's expensive entitlement programs, mainly Social Security and Medicare. If Mr. Clinton's proposal last night gets Congress to deal with these problems in a bipartisan way, it will be a major accomplishment of his administration" (1/28).
In the GOP response, Lott noted other "important subjects that Congress will deal with" in the coming session, including "ending the dreadful practice of partial-birth abortions." He said, "I urge our Democratic colleagues in the Senate to help us override the president's second veto of that legislation" (1/27).
Good Seat For NIH
Underscoring Clinton's commitment to biomedical research, NIH Director Harold Varmus, "a Nobel Prize winner and professor from the University of California at San Francisco," was seated next to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the House gallery last night (Freedburg, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/28).
CBS' Dan Rather called the Clinton speech "lean and direct, tightly focused." In it, Rather said the president "[laid] out what he sees as the Democratic party's best themes." However, Rather said the speech consisted of a "lot of policy and a little politics, but not much passion, not much philosophy. Anybody who was hoping for a new, soaring, overarching theme may have been disappointed" (1/27).