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CBO finds moderate Senate health bill would cost billions less than estimated


WASHINGTON -- The Congressional Budget Office has tentatively determined that a modest approach to revamping the current health care system would be significantly less expensive and more workable than initially believed, congressional sources said yesterday.

If that is the conclusion in the CBO's final report, it could add fuel to a movement among moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats toward reforms that would fall short of President Clinton's goal of universal coverage. The report may be released as early as today.

A measure passed by the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month would contain no mandate that employers pay for any part of their workers' health benefits and would contain no government-imposed price controls on insurance premiums.

The measure, which is the only health care alternative to have significant support among members of both parties, is one of several that Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, must consider as he prepares legislation to take to the Senate floor this week or next. Mr. Mitchell has insisted, however, that he will not back away from universal coverage.

Mr. Clinton and his allies in Congress have warned that an incremental approach, such as the Senate Finance Committee measure, would be unworkable because it would lack the necessary financing, particularly to provide subsidies to help poor and moderate-income people buy health insurance.

Because the bill lacked the controversial employer mandate, the subsidies were its chief means of assuring coverage to those who could not otherwise afford it.

The bill's backers feared the budget office would find that the measure would fall short by as much as $100 billion over five years. Instead the CBO has tentatively determined that the gap is far more bridgeable -- well under $20 billion, according to sources familiar with the early draft.

However, the sources said, the Finance Committee bill also would expand health care coverage to about 92 percent, up from the current level of about 85 percent but well short of universal coverage.

In other developments Monday:

* U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth in Washington ordered a trial to determine whether the records of the White House's health care task force should be made public. The panel spent much of 1993 developing the president's massive reform agenda behind closed doors.

* It was announced that several Cabinet secretaries will participate in the "Health Security Express" bus caravans, which are to bring "reform riders" to Washington in early August. The caravans are being organized by several groups that back comprehensive reform.

* A new study on the unprecedented advertising blitz by all sides in the controversy found that 59 percent of broadcast ads and 28 percent of print ads were "unfair, misleading or false" and designed mostly to play on public fears of change.

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