Hidden issue on the Hill Insurance money: Minimum wage, health care hung up on medical savings accounts.


TWO POPULAR BILLS, an overdue increase in the minimum wage and long-sought health care reform, remain in jeopardy because of a brutal fight in Congress largely obscured from public view.

Ostensibly, the issue is whether the Republicans can attach "medical savings accounts" to a measure that would guarantee health insurance for workers changing jobs or afflicted with pre-existing medical conditions. But the real contest is over money -- the kind big contributors funnel to political causes.

Democrats are furious over large sums J. Patrick Rooney of Golden Rule Insurance Co. has spent to promote a plan that would allow citizens to set up MSAs to get tax breaks in paying medical bills. Republicans are just as adamant the money question should not block what they -- and a number of centrist to conservative Democrats -- consider a good idea.

Actually, the Medical Savings Account plan has been reduced to such modest dimensions that a battle royal cannot be justified on substance alone. But in a presidential election year, bare knuckle politics reigns supreme.

Democrats have scored such a stunning victory by pushing a 90-cents-an-hour minimum wage increase to passage in the House and now the Senate that Trent Lott, the new Senate majority leader, can hardly wait to put the issue behind him. But his second in command, Sen. Don Nickles, says no way will he let a conference committee write a final bill unless the Democratic firebrand, Sen. Edward Kennedy, permits a similar conference committee to work its will on health care reform.

Mr. Kennedy rightly perceives that this is a win-win situation for his party because the public fully supports higher minimum wages while it barely knows what MSAs are all about. So he is content to let the battle continue just so long as Mr. Nickles and the GOP leadership in the House perversely display their loyalty to their big insurance contributors.

And Congress wonders why it gets no respect? It's because these political games infuriate voters. Both the minimum wage hike and health care reforms (including the MSA experiment) are in the public interest. They should be moved to final passage -- and soon.

Pub date: 7/11/96

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