WASHINGTON -- The White House will delay introducing its massive health care reform plan until early September so Congress can concentrate on passing President Clinton's budget before the August recess, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told House Democrats.
The first lady also confirmed yesterday in separate remarks to a Washington think-tank that the Clinton administration would seek to tax as extra income any health benefits in excess of the standard medical insurance plan being designed by the federal government.
Such a tax has long been under consideration by the White House Task Force on Health Care Reform, but her remarks to the Center for Strategic and International Studies provided the first confirmation that the administration would ask Congress to levy such a tax.
The rationale for a health benefits "luxury" tax is to discourage the proliferation of expensive plans that would continue to drive up medical costs. At the same time, Clinton administration planners believe such a tax also would encourage cost consciousness by consumers.
The administration's decision to delay the introduction of its health care reform package all but ensures that no legislation can be enacted this year and perhaps not until well into 1994 -- an election year in which office seekers may be loathe to vote for a complex piece of legislation that would require significant tax increases and spark withering attacks from doctors, hospitals, insurers, drugmakers, small businesses and possibly even labor unions.
News of the delay disappointed many advocates of health care reform, while others privately expressed hope that the administration will use the extra time to develop an effective strategy for selling the reforms to what may be a skeptical and reluctant public.
"I think they underestimated how easy it would be to put together [a marketing plan]," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
"This gives them some time to organize themselves and prevent this whole thing from being sort of lost in all the rest of what's going on up here," added Mr. McDermott, who led a delegation of House Democrats in yesterday's meeting with Mrs. Clinton.
The first lady disclosed the latest administration timetable during the 90-minute meeting, which was attended by more than 30 advocates of a single-payer, Canadian-style system in which the government is the sole source of health care funding.
Several congressmen said afterward that the first lady told them the president intends to make the final, key decisions on his health care proposals by the end of July, after returning from an economic summit in Tokyo and a brief vacation in Hawaii.
On Capitol Hill later in the day, when was asked by reporters about the administration's decision to delay unveiling its health care plan, Mrs. Clinton said its introduction would depend on congressional approval of the budget, which is expected in late July.