WASHINGTON -- Hillary Rodham Clinton lashed out in NTC unusually harsh language at the health insurance industry yesterday as the Clinton administration tried to stem the erosion of public support for its health care reform plan.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the president's wife accused health insurers of lying to the American people in television commercials that feature a worried couple at the kitchen table trying to understand the president's proposal.
"One of the great lies that is currently afoot in the country is that the president's plan will limit choice," Mrs. Clinton said vehemently.
"You've all seen the ads," she told the pediatricians. "The kind of homey kitchen ads where you've got the couple sitting there talking about how the president's plan is going to take away choice. . . .
"It is time for you and for every American to stand up and say to the insurance industry: 'Enough is enough -- we want our health care system back,' " she demanded, as the audience of doctors burst into applause.
Mrs. Clinton charged that the industry wants to perpetuate the current system so it can continue to deny coverage to people in poor health.
By contrast, she said, the president's plan would provide health care for 9 million uninsured children and cover many preventive services for the first time.
An industry official responded that Mrs. Clinton was misrepresenting the position of insurers in an effort to find a scapegoat.
"I think the ads have indeed raised legitimate questions," said Richard Coorsh, spokesman for the Health Insurance Association America (HIAA), which is paying for the $6.5 million ad campaign. "They are based chapter and verse on the president's own draft proposal."
The insurance industry -- along with drug companies -- long has been the target of administration criticism. Mrs. Clinton escalated the war of words yesterday as a new survey showed that the administration must prepare for a long fight.
A Gallup Poll for Cable News Network and USA Today indicated that support for the president's plan is down significantly since his Sept. 22 speech to the nation.
The poll, taken after the president submitted his reform bill to Congress on Wednesday, found Americans split 45 percent to 45 percent on the plan, as opposed to 59 percent support for the plan immediately after his September speech. The survey found concern over cost, complexity and the quality of care.
"People have to realize that we're in the third inning of a nine-inning game," said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care philanthropy that is tracking public attitudes toward reform.
Mr. Coorsh, the HIAA spokesman, said the insurance industry favors cradle-to-grave coverage for all Americans, regardless of their health. Insurers also support President Clinton's plan to require all employers to provide coverage.
But the industry opposes the powerful insurance purchasing pools the administration wants to set up, as well as its proposal to limit insurance premiums and put the health care system on a budget.
In the HIAA commercial, currently being broadcast on CNN and some local stations around the country, the couple at the kitchen table are talking about the proposed national health care budget:
Woman: "The government caps how much the country can spend on health care. . . ."
Man: "So -- what if our health plan runs out of money?"
Woman: "There's got to be a better way."
That last line seemed to really bother Mrs. Clinton. "They have the gall to run TV ads that [say] there is a better way," she complained to the pediatricians. "The very industry that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy because of the way that they have financed health care."
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
QUESTION: I've had several friends, one right now, a 91-year-old woman who's being put out of the hospital before she should be, only on the basis that her insurance people are pressuring them to get her out. Will the Clinton health plan insist that people get the complete treatment they need? F. H., Baltimore.
ANSWER: Hospital experts think the pressure to move people out of the hospital will decrease as hospitals and other health care providers are given more responsibility for a person's health, including prevention. Right now, hospitals won't get paid if a patient stays longer than an insurance company thinks appropriate. In the future under this plan, hospitals and other providers will likely be paid a fixed amount per person in their health care network. In such a network, they'll have an economic incentive to give patients adequate care so they aren't forced to return for further treatment.
If you have questions about health care reform, we'd like to hear them. Call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). After you hear the greeting, punch in the four-digit code 4425.