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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 17, 1998
                       REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                          Longworth Building
                             Capitol Hill

11:35 A.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Senator Kennedy is even more exuberant than normal today, but you have to forgive him and me and Senator Moynihan and isolated others -- this is St. Patrick's Day, and were feeling pretty good, the Irish are. (Laughter.)

Thank you, Congressman Stark, for your long leadership and your willingness to push this legislation. Thank you, Senator Moynihan, for making it utterly clear, so that no one can dispute it, that this legislation presents no threat to the integrity of the Medicare program or the security of the trust fund. Thank you, Sherrod Brown, for your initiative and your leadership. As always, thank you, Senator Kennedy.

And I'd like to say a word of thanks to one person who has not spoken here today -- our Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, who has worked so hard to help one particular group of Americans here -- Americans who retired early, in part because they were promised health care benefits which were then denied to them. This will take care of them, and we can keep the promise that others made to them. And I think we have to do it. And thank you, Tom Daschle, for fighting for them. (Applause.)

I'd also like to thank Leader Gephardt and Congressman Dingell and all the members of the House Caucus who are here -- thank you very, very much. And I can't help noting that this may be the first public appearance in Washington for the newest member of this Caucus, Representative Lois Capps, from California. (Applause.)

Let me begin with a point I have made over and over to the American people since the State of the Union address. This is a remarkable time for our country. I look at all these young people who are working here, and I think how glad I am they are coming of age at a time when America is working; when we are making progress, economically, we're making progress on our social problems, we're making progress in our quest for peace and security in the world.

But everybody knows that the world is changing very rapidly. And so the question is, what should we be doing in the midst of good times. I believe the last thing we should be doing is sitting on our lead -- if I could use a sports analogy. Good times give us the confidence, the resources and the space not only to dream about the future we want in the 21st century, but to take action to deal with it. It is wrong to sit idly by when we can be taking steps to prepare for that future. That's why I don't want us to spend a surplus that is only now beginning to materialize until we have saved Social Security for the 21st century. That's why I want us to work together to make sure we deal with the long-term challenges of Medicare.

But it's also why I think we should not let a single day go by when Americans have problems that we can remedy in ways that will not weaken our present success, but instead will reinforce it. That's why I hope we get a comprehensive bill through to deal with the tobacco problem, because there are a thousand kids a day whose lives are at stake. And that's why I believe we should be dealing with this issue now.

President Johnson said when Medicare was first enacted that it proved the vitality of our democracy can shape the oldest of our values to the needs and obligations of changing times. That's what these leaders are doing here today.

You heard Senator Moynihan say most people don't wait until they're 65 to retire. But the fastest growing group of people are people over 65. There are huge numbers of people in this age group. There are people 62 and over who have lost their health insurance, but can't buy into Medicare. There are people under 65 who are married to somebody who's 65 or older who had the health insurance, and that person retired, got into Medicare, but the spouse lost the health insurance. There are people who are 55 and over who have been downsized, or who actually retired, early retirement, because their employer actually promised them they would have health insurance, and then the promise was not kept.

I want to say that this is not an entirely disinterested thing. In 2001, I will be 55 and unemployed, through no fault of my own. (Laughter.) And this bill has a lot of appeal to me. (Laughter.) I say that to make you laugh. I get a lot of letters from people that I've known a long time who are my age, who are middle class people -- people I grew up with, whose spouses are beginning to have the health problems that go along with just working your way through life; people who don't have a great health insurance coverage, like I've been privileged to have. And they are terrified that they will spend the years between 55 and 65 with maybe the most challenging health problems in their entire lives cropping up, with no insurance.

Now, I believe that this is an issue on which Democrats and Republicans should be able to unite. We ask the Republicans to come and help us on this. Let's don't play election year games on this. We don't want to, either. We want to do it in a bipartisan fashion and get it behind us. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there in America who need this initiative.

People say, well, why don't you wait until the Medicare Commission comes in and issues its report. My answer is Senator Moynihan's answer -- because we have the Congressional Budget Office estimates. They told us that this will add nothing to the burden of the Medicare trust fund, it will cost less than we had originally thought and we can insure more people.

But remember the human dimension. Remember Ruth Cain, who spoke when we announced this program in January. When her husband turned 65, her employer dropped their insurance benefits. He got Medicare, she didn't. But she had a heart condition and they couldn't afford health insurance. So she didn't get health insurance. She went to the hospital one time and the bill was $13,000. Some people have said of our proposal, well, this bill costs a lot of money for retired people -- $300 a month or something. One trip to the hospital for anything will more than likely be more than twice as much in one pop as a whole year's annual premiums. The most minor trip to the hospital. The Cains and families like them, the families that Congressman Brown mentioned, they ought to have another choice.

Today, I am releasing a report that shows state by state how many Americans need these protections -- state by state. And we will see, state by state, the human lives we're talking about and the number of people that will be put at risk if we wait another year to do this.

Tomorrow the Kaiser Foundation will unveil a study that shows that the individual insurance market often denies coverage or charges excessive premiums to older, sicker Americans, the very people this policy would help to protect. Senator Moynihan said, I want to reiterate because I have heard Senator Kennedy mention the criticisms of this program -- I want to say this a second time -- the Congressional Budget Office -- not the administration's Budget Office, the Congressional Budget Office -- reports this plan will cost individuals even less and benefit even more people than we first estimated. It will give somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 Americans new options for health care coverage at a vulnerable time in their lives.

Let me say one other thing. The bipartisan Kennedy-Kassebaum legislation we adopted last year -- or in 1996 -- was also designed to help Americans keep their health care when they changed jobs or when someone in their family got sick -- a bill like this one, designed to give people peace of mind. But we now see on news reports today -- another good reason why it's better for us to do this in this way -- because just today we see that some insurers are finding ways around that law, giving insurance agents incentives to delay or deny coverage to vulnerable Americans. These practices have to be stopped. I am directing Secretary Shalala and the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a thorough review of the options for strengthening the protections of the Kennedy-Kassebaum law. (Applause.)

And tomorrow the Department will send a notice to every insurer in every state in our country affirming what we already know, that impeding anyone's access to health care in violation of this law is illegal. It's not just wrong, it's illegal. The law is vital to the health and stability of America's workers and their families. We intend to enforce it vigorously.

But let me say, you see the problems we have with that kind of approach. With this kind of approach, anybody who can afford the premium or whose children or relatives will help them to afford this premium, won't have to worry about whether they have health care coverage. We won't have to worry about some regulation or waiting for a report to come in to tell us whether this or that or the other person is complying. We will know that we're helping hundreds of thousands of people who have worked hard all their lives and played by the rules and been good citizens to have the decent, secure time in a vulnerable period of their lives. We can extend this opportunity in a responsible way.

Medicare is one of the crowning achievements of this century for the American people. With this legislation, and with the other challenges that we intend to face and overcome, we can make sure, as we become an older and older and older country -- which is, I always say, a high-class problem -- that Medicare will be one of the crowning achievements of the 21st century as well.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

END 11:47 A.M. EST