Republican senator pitches health care plan at Hopkins


Sen. Arlen Specter, who helped defeat the Clinton administration's comprehensive health care reform plan a few months ago, came to the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health yesterday to pitch his own "step-by-step" proposal.

Speaking to about 30 students, professors and Baltimore health officials, he said his "Health Care Assurance Act," introduced Jan. 4, "targets specific problems" and promotes preventive care, including efforts to stem infant mortality.

The Pennsylvania Republican, who is preparing to run for president, said he stopped yesterday morning at a Delaware hospital where he saw a 1-pound, 7-ounce newborn clinging to life.

"That child is a human tragedy, carrying scars for a lifetime," he said. "It's also a financial disaster." Each premature infant, he said, costs taxpayers an average of $200,000 in health care, educational and other costs.

His health plan would use a balance of new regulations, voluntary "purchasing groups" and changes in tax laws to reduce the number of uninsured Americans.

"This is a set of incremental reforms that by and large would have widespread support," said Gail R. Wilensky, the former Republican chief of the Health Care Financing Administration and a senior fellow with Project Hope. But she questioned the senator's claim that added costs would be offset by savings.

Mr. Specter said he favors expanding "Healthy Start," a $100 million-a-year effort to reduce infant deaths in Baltimore and 21 other U.S. communities that have high infant mortality rates.

He would do this, he said, through grants to states that set up their own prevention programs and adopt a goal of reducing infant death rates by 50 percent.

Several people in the audience expressed concern that states that didn't achieve the goal would lose funding. Dr. Bernard Guyer, professor of Maternal and Child Health, said that without improved living standards for the poor, "I doubt that medical intervention can reduce infant mortality by 50 percent."

Dr. Peter Beilenson, commissioner of the city Health Department, faulted the plan for not requiring health insurers to pay for drug and alcohol treatment. "Substance abuse is a huge problem" that contributes to high infant mortality rates, he said.

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