THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY AND CHRIS JENNINGS, DEPUTY ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT FOR HEALTH CARE POLICY
The Briefing Room
1:04 P.M. EDT
MR. JENNINGS: Well, good afternoon again, everyone. I don't have a health care announcement for tomorrow, so this will be the last thing for at least the next 24 hours. I just want to talk to you about the President's announcement today. As is accurately reported in The New York Times today, the President is going to be signing an executive memorandum that empowers the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the Federal Employees Health Benefit plans, over 350 health plans that the government contracts out, to give them the authority to -- not to give them, to direct them to use their authority to take all such actions including -- up to and including termination from FEHPP plans who are not in compliance with the Kennedy-Kassebaum legislation.
As you know, earlier this year the General Accounting Office, the Department as well as a number of press reports documented that there were and apparently continue to be some problems in this area with some insurers providing incentives to agents and other practices that seem completely inconsistent with the letter and the intents of the Kennedy-Kassebaum legislation. Specifically, we've heard reports that there are commissions being structured in such a way that agents do not have incentives to enroll Kennedy-Kassebaum eligible enrollees, and also that they even go so far as to delay the enrollment so as to have a break in coverage long enough not to have the protections afforded to them under that legislation that the Congress passed in 1996.
We've heard other reports as well from the Department, including some plans that apparently are violating even the preexisting condition provisions. One plan reportedly said that, we don't cover pregnancy, when someone came and said, I want to get my access to health -- my portability provision protections under the legislation. That absolutely is inconsistent with the statute. And today's action really puts teeth behind the action the President made earlier -- took earlier this year when we originally had this report forwarded to us, when he asked the Department to send a letter to every single insurance commissioner in this nation to make certain that they were enforcing the law consistent with the statute.
Today, we will be making this announcement with the state insurance commissioners. The present insurance commissioner, Glenn Pomeroy, is going to be with us. He -- as you know, these are Republican and Democratic commissioners who are enforcing the law. Forty-four states in the country are the primary enforcers of the Kassebaum-Kennedy legislation and they are working with us, and they will be reporting any violations that they see directly to OPM so that they can make a determination as to whether or not termination is in order for health plans that do come out of compliance.
We are also directing HCFA to report any -- the Health Care Financing Administration -- any violations that they have found directly to OPM so they can make a determination as to whether further action is necessary.
And lastly, we have requested that the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services undertake a report to provide to the President within six months about both the strengths and shortcomings of the Kassebaum-Kennedy legislation. There may well be areas -- certainly, we've heard reports of pricing issues that may raise concerns and may justify further legislative efforts into the future, and we certainly want to look at that report as well.
This builds on the actions, as I mentioned the President took earlier in the year. The President is quite proud of the Kassebaum-Kennedy legislation. He wants to make sure it's as successful as possible. Many people aren't aware that that legislation included not just the insurance protections, but a whole host of other things, including eliminating some of the discriminatory tax provisions for the self-employed, the strengthening of a fraud and abuse initiative and a host of tax clarifications for private, long-term care policies. So we want to make sure that this legislation is implemented as strong as it possibly can be.
And, lastly, I think you will hear the President, as he did yesterday, continue to push Congress for a strong bipartisan momentum to pass a patient bill of rights this year, and he will continue to call on Congress to take action before the Congress adjourns at the end of this year.
So with that, I'd be happy to answer any questions.
Q I asked you yesterday what the event was today. You refused to answer. Two days in a row, The New York Times has had these announcements and so forth. I mean, we're interested, you know, in what the White House does and it should not be a one-way street, and we're getting tired of that.
MR. JENNINGS: I will report that back, but I would like to say that in The New York Times article yesterday on the HMO story wasn't the announcement that the President made on the low-income QMB program. That was something that, I think, no one had until the President made that announcement. But I hear your concerns, and they will be relayed to the powers that be that aren't me. (Laughter.)
Q What's the scope of this problem -- the problem that you're trying to address with this executive memorandum? What is the scope -- how many people are not able to get the insurance they thought they could get through Kennedy-Kassebaum?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, actually, we've heard that since the President took the action in March that there seems to be some responsiveness out in the marketplace. We are still hearing some reports from the Department. We don't know the degree to which it is -- I can't give you numbers right now. Obviously, the President believes that if there's any one person across the country who aren't accessing the protections that were afforded to them under the Kennedy-Kassebaum legislation that is one to many. And that's why he's putting teeth behind the action he took earlier this year.
Q Chris, were there no enforcement provisions in the first place in the legislation?
MR. JENNINGS: There are enforcement provisions. In fact, both the insurance commissioners and the Health Care Financing Administration do have enforcement mechanisms. This builds on those mechanism and actually enhances them because not only do you face the civil and monetary fines that you could get under the legislation, but you could face the consequences of no longer being able to participate in a much more financially fruitful enterprise, which is contracts under the FEHPP program, and that's why the President chose to move ahead on this.
Q Has there been no enforcement by the state commissioners?
MR. JENNINGS: No -- you'll hear from Glenn Pomeroy today that every time they have had any type of violation they have moved very, very quickly. They have, in some cases, they've been able to, as I understand it, go directly to the insurer to clarify that they will take actions. And, in general, they have found some success in having them come into compliance after they've intervened. But it's something that you'll hear from them today say it's just the number on priority. If we don't have strong enforcement mechanism within these legislation, then we don't have the confidence of the public that this legislation is real. And that's why we're making this announcement today.
Q Do you have any specific insurers in mind, could you name them?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, I don't have insurers that I'm going to name today. I think that generally what we try to do is we -- to date, we try to intervene in a way that gets them to come into compliance. And where they do, I think, in some cases, they allege that they didn't know fully of the provisions in the law, and they do come into compliance. So I don't want to start naming names of particular companies.
Q But you do have specific companies that you're sure have violated the law?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, there definitely -- there have been reports, in fact, HCFA went out into the field -- in fact, when the General Accounting Office made their report earlier this year, the GAO actually went to the field and in two out of the three states they surveyed, they found these violations. You may want to talk to them about specific companies.
Q Since this is a violation of Kennedy-Kassebaum, isn't it possible that there are criminal violations, and shouldn't they be investigated by the Justice Department?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, to the extent that there are any violations whatsoever, they should enforce them as they have the authority to do so under the statute, which includes civil monetary penalties. And where they have, they have threatened to move -- they have moved in that area. I'm unaware of a specific provision where they have used all those sanctions yet, but what we want to do is we want to send a strong message that under any and all scenarios, that we will not let it go to that end. We will enforce it to the fullest extent of the law and add further teeth, as we are today.
Q I'm wondering why the President is not directing his Justice Department to investigate this more thoroughly and put resources into an investigation of that nature.
MR. JENNINGS: Well, actually he has done that with HCFA, and the Justice Department serves as the backup enforcement agency for HHS where there are problems. So Justice is and will continue to be involved in that regard.
Q You said that this was to add more teeth to the Kennedy-Kassebaum legislation. So was that legislation before ineffective, and what were the teeth that were already in that legislation?
MR. JENNINGS: No, there are daily civil monetary penalties for those plans that are out of compliance, and those are, we think, are important enforcement tools. But any time that the President can stand up and provide additional strengthening provisions, we think that we should do just that. All we simply are doing is using OPM's leverage with all other insurance plans in the country to push them into compliance or to insure they'll come into compliance. Actually, more important than that, it is really as much a message as to intervene current problems today, it is also to insure that we don't have future problems.
When you send a strong message like that, we think the insurance industry listens. And it's been my -- in fact, earlier this year, I was in a panel with the now President-elect of the Health Insurance Association of America who explicitly said that any such practice are in violations with the spirit of the law and should not be tolerated. So I'm hoping that today, HIAA will continue their past public support of abhorrence to any type of activities in this area.
Q The health insurance industry also says, though, that to the extent that there are problems, they are in states where there aren't high-risk pools, that it's really a problem of affordability more than the problem that you're tackling. Would you agree with that or not?
MR. JENNINGS: I think that the issue of affordability is always a major problem. And as you know, this legislation provided for leeway for insurers to increase costs of plans, even for the Kassebaum-Kennedy-eligible plans. And we've actually heard problems raised in both contexts. Both the marketing abuses that we're addressing today and the premiums issue. And that's why the President, as part of this announcement, instructing Labor and HHS to come back with specific statutory recommendations if we need to address those provisions, but we want to make sure that we document those problems fully, we understand them, and then we move to build on legislative interventions if they are necessary.
Q There's no violation if an insurance company decides to charge an individual six or seven times the normal premium -- they're not violating Kennedy-Kassebaum, right?
MR. JENNINGS: In fact, there are cases in which insurers are charging much more than that. I think that that would be viewed as -- that was an issue that was raised during the deliberations on Kassebaum-Kennedy. The insurers and others felt strongly that we should see to the degree to which it's a problem before we intervene, imposing rating bans or any other such interventions. You'll find that various states have taken different actions to address that problem.
For example, I believe it's North Dakota -- and maybe the insurance commissioner coming today can give you a little bit more information -- but also Maryland and other states, they have imposed restrictions that say you cannot charge in some of the risk pools that -- are talking about, and others, more than 200 percent or 150 percent of the premiums that they're charging the rest of the individual marketplace. And you'll see that other states will be taking those actions. That may be something that we might want to look at. If we're seeing that there are individual policies that are being -- premiums that are being charged at 10, 11, 12, 20 times the individual marketplace, that may justify some interventions. But we're not making an announcement of that until we get a report back from HHS and Labor to the degree to which it is a problem.
Q Can you explain how this mechanism of executive authority works, why it's a memorandum and not an order, and what law it comes from?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, an executive memorandum as well as executive orders, they basically have the same impact in terms of force of law. They are instructions and guidance specifically from the Executive Branch of the President to his agencies that explicitly say, you must do this. And until another executive memorandum or executive order is issued to countervail that action, it has the enforceable law for those agencies.
Q What's the difference between a memorandum and an order?
MR. JENNINGS: There is somewhat of a different process. The executive order has to go and clear through OMB, and executive memorandum goes through a DPC-NEC review process. But they have the same effect of law and you can refer further specific questions about the details of that to our Cabinet Secretary or our attorneys in the White House.
Q Basically, it's like an inter-office memo in the corporate world, right? The CEO saying follow this policy, right?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, I think it -- except it has the force of law, and I think that most people, unless they're going to get fired, in the CEO community, do follow the CEO's directions. But in this case, not only do they -- and most of our agencies certainly follow the President's directives, but we want to make sure that not just this department under this administration follow this directive, but future do as well.
Q Chris, why not name the insurers if you're saying your putting more teeth in this? I mean, wouldn't that give them some sort of incentive to comply with the law?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, to the extent that we have real problems in the future, that might be something we consider. But generally, you know, the White House generally doesn't go around naming names. That's really the job of the enforcement agencies, and the degree to which you would like follow through on those activities. But, you know, you're just not going to hear me say specific names today.
Q Well, then we've got a problem then. You won't give us any numbers, you won't give us any insurers, yet you say there are cases there, you say there are insurers --
Q What's the problem?
Q Why shouldn't we just view this as political grandstanding by the White House?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, I mean, first of all, the General Accounting Office is not viewed as a -- I mean, this is an agency who does oversight over the federal government, over us, and issues critical reports every day. I don't think by any means an independent entity that Congress established to oversee the federal -- to oversee us, is going to be issuing reports that claims there are problems. Moreover, we have separate reports from HCFA, which is the enforcement agency of HCFA, that have raised concerns. The GAO report is a public document. It is certainly out there and available. And to the degree that which -- I mean, if we have -- we have specific documented problems, and they have been laid out by GAO and others, and the President is doing all he can to ensure that we have strong enforcement mechanisms to make sure they don't happen again and into the future.
Q How many daily monetary fines have been issued?
MR. JENNINGS: You know, I'm unaware of whether they have been issued at the state level. I think you may want to talk to Glenn Pomeroy when he comes back -- he's going to be here with the President and as you know. Again, once again, the insurance commissioners are a bipartisan organization that have more Republicans than Democrats and are standing with us today to ensure that these enforcement mechanisms are real. I don't think they would do that if that wasn't the case.
Q Can you talk about the scope of the problem? I understand you don't have a specific number of people involved. But are we talking about a handful of Americans or hundreds or thousands or millions? How many people are affected by this problem that you're trying to address?
MR. JENNINGS: Well, there are millions of Americans who are provide these additional protections under the law and that when the President signed that into law in 1996. When GAO went out into the field and found in two other three states that were problems in this area earlier this year, that would certainly suggest that that might be replicated across the country.
They did a random survey; they went out into the states, and they did that. To the degree to which it it's a problem, I have to tell you I cannot give you specific numbers. But I can tell you this, that whether it's 5, 10, 1,000, 1 million, it's an unacceptable number. And taking a strong enforcement action that the President is doing to send a signal to all insurers I think is a very constructive move by him and something that is a very appropriate use of his executive authority.
Q If I could follow up on an earlier one, this doesn't -- the action he's taking today does nothing about the question of price gouging, if that's going on -- is that right? That would only be addressed later in other legislation?
MR. JENNINGS: That is correct. That is correct. That is a troubling -- and as David points out, there have been reports of that in Colorado, California, others, that insurers are charging 10, 15, 20 times the rate of premiums they're charging for other people in the individual marketplace. If that is a broad problem across this country, it may well be something that we need to look at. But we also have to understand the implications of intervening in that area. And with all due respect to HIAA, I think the high-risk pools may be an answer, but we don't know if that's going to be the only answer. And we'll have to make sure that those risk pools are accessible and they're affordable.
Q That just affects federal employees. How many federal employees do you think have been penalized in some way or not had this portability --
MR. JENNINGS: Well, the advantage, of course, if you're a federal employee is, you have health insurance, so this isn't an issue of going -- this is an issue where you go from a job to a job. Now, to the extent it affects any federal employees, it would be just a federal employee who leaves current service and goes into an individual marketplace and finds themselves to be getting inappropriate treatment by an insurer or an agent. That would provide protection to that former federal employee, but this doesn't have any direct impact on federal employees, except to the extent to which if we see there are problems and OPM takes an action, they can terminate a health plan, and then obviously OPM will make appropriate arrangements to insure health plans are provided for those populations.
Q And in these reports that you won't tell us anything about, are there federal --
MR. JENNINGS: No, I'm telling you, I just went through --
Q -- are there companies who sell insurance to federal employees who have been cited by GAO or other organizations?
MR. JENNINGS: I'm sorry.
Q Are there insurers to federal employees who have been cited for violating this law?
MR. JENNINGS: Oh, of former federal employees? Is that what you're asking?
Q The companies that you're essentially going to target under this --
MR. JENNINGS: Oh, is there a list of the number of insurers and who they are?
Q No, the companies that you're targeting, have they been cited by GAO or others for violating Kennedy-Kassebaum?
MR. JENNINGS: I would have to ask OPM that issue and we can talk to Janice Lachance -- she's going to be here today.
Q I don't understand how you cannot know that since these are the companies we're talking about.
MR. JENNINGS: Listen, I'm not going to single out any particular company right now.
Q Well, then don't give us any numbers, just say yes, there are; or no, there aren't.
MR. JENNINGS: I would anticipate that of the 350 plans at OPM, there's probably some plans that may, directly or indirectly, be out of compliance with the Kassebaum-Kennedy legislation. But I'm -- you're asking me do I know which one that is, or can I tell you that; I'm not prepared to do that.
Q But you guys have read the GAO report and other things, right?
MR. JENNINGS: The GAO report did not go into specific insurers. They give specific -- and they documented some of the explicit problems that were there, but they did not give specific company names.
Q Chris, can you understand the problem we're having here, is you're fixing to have an event out here to talk about a problem that you can neither give us names on or quantify the nature of the problem -- how big it is, how many people it impacts. We're left to wonder if perhaps this is not done for political purposes so that Democrats can gain the issue of health care as their issue.
MR. JENNINGS: Let me just say that adequate and strong enforcement of an important legislative act like -- that was supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, is something that I don't believe is political by any means. And sending a strong signal to insurers that any practices that run afoul of the specific statutory intent of the law I think is absolutely appropriate intervention by the President of the United States. And that's what we're doing today.
Q Do you think the Kennedy-Kassebaum law has generally worked as it was intended, and generally made insurance available to the people who it was intended to provide insurance for, and this is the exceptional case? Or do you think that the law has not worked like it was intended?
MR. JENNINGS: I believe that from what we know, that it has provided significant protections, much greater uniformity throughout this nation, and is very critically important legislation that has made a difference in the lives of real people. Even my own brother is an example, who now has access to a HCFA-eligible policy in Maryland as a result, and he has a serious preexisting condition. So, yes, I believe it's made some very, very positive difference in people's lives.
However, there are reports of practices that are inconsistent with the letter intent of the law. And where there are such reports, it seems entirely appropriate. I think if we weren't doing this, we should be criticized. That, I think, is the issue that we're talking about. Why shouldn't the President -- the President should intervene where there are problems, and there are problems and they've been documented by both HCFA, the enforcement agency of the Kassebaum-Kennedy legislation, as well as the General Accounting Office.
Q One of the analysts I talked to today said that the insurance companies that participate in federal workers' programs tend to be larger insurance companies. And the insurance companies that offer individual or small group policies tend to be smaller companies would not participate in a federal program. Is that a fair --
MR. JENNINGS: There are insurers who do not participate in FEHPP who do participate in the individual marketplace and who would not be directly impacted by this intervention; that's absolutely the case. However, most of the insurers who participate in OPM through FEHPP also participate in the individual marketplace as well. And we are using the leverage that we have with the FEHPP program through OPM and we're targeting each one of those insurers that do participate. And again, there are 350 insurers who do, and according to OPM, the vast, vast majority of them do participate in the individual marketplace.
Thank you all very much.
Q Same time tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: Any other subjects?
Q Do you have any reaction to the border --
MR. MCCURRY: The President did. He ordered Doris Meissner, the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Service, to immediately look into it. My understanding is that she is issuing a statement shortly through INS which will be available to you and she will depart for Texas shortly.
Q Are the United States and China about to begin joint military exercises?
MR. MCCURRY: No, they're about to carry out the exchange of observers that we announced to you in the fact sheet that we issued following the President's meeting with Jiang Zemin last Saturday.
Q What about the search and rescue operation?
MR. MCCURRY: It's one of the exchange of observers. Look to your fact sheet that we put out in Beijing and you will see some of the detail on that. I think the Pentagon can provide you some additional information.
Remember back in October of last year when we had Jiang Zemin's visit here, closer mil-to-mil contact was one of the things that we indicated would be part of the working program of our engagement strategy with China. Over the course of the coming year, some of those things are coming on line now, and there have been, I think, some observer delegations that have gone now to Washington.
Q But if there is a search and rescue joint exercise, isn't that different than just observers participating?
MR. MCCURRY: Let me go to what we've said we would do. We've got a maritime consultative agreement that later in this month will allow for the first annual meeting of the military maritime consultative agreement forum in which we promote safety in naval and air operations and avoid incidents at sea. Coming out of that agreement are some of the things we're going to do on SAR together. We've got exchange of observers. The United States and Chinese militaries have agreed to send personnel in the near future to observe a joint training exercise of the other side on the basis of reciprocity.
I think if you check at the Pentagon, they can tell you exactly what that U.S. exercise is going to be the Chinese military officials observe. And then they're going to do some work in disaster response -- how the two sides can work to deconflict operations of our military if they're responding to some kind of national disaster. All of this, we reported to in Beijing, and I'm glad that you want to follow up on it.
Q Mike, you just said observe joint-training exercises. Is that what you meant to say?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q Training exercises or joint U.S.-Sino training?
MR. MCCURRY: They will have some joint training going on, and senior military officials will observe. It's my understanding, right? The first one that's on the line that Wolf is asking about is just an exchange of observers. And then they do foresee some joint --
COLONEL CROWLEY: And U.S. training with other countries not including China.
MR. MCCURRY: Right.
Q But there's a difference between observing U.S. exercises and participating in a joint exercise.
MR. MCCURRY: We'll look into that further for you.
Q To follow up, does the U.S have any such exercises with Taiwan?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll look into further, as I've just said.
Q On China, can I follow up on China? Senator Lott this morning says that the Congress is going to have to repair the damage done to Taiwan as the result of President's Clinton articulating the so-called "three no's" policy toward Taiwan.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, since the President reiterated a policy towards China that has had broad bipartisan support going back through a number of presidencies, that would indicate that Senator Lott intends to change our policy towards China and-or Taiwan. I think you need to ask him how specifically he proposes to change the policy that the President in China merely reiterated.
Q Mike, there's a series of trips to Africa, and I understand it starts today with Secretary Slater. Could you talk a little bit about what's going on? I understand that Rubin is next week as well.
MR. MCCURRY: There are two separate trips the two Secretaries are taking. Secretary Slater will be -- both of them are in furtherance of the President's partnership for economic growth and opportunity with Africa, which we unveiled at the time of his Africa trip. Secretary Slater will be promoting the Clinton administration's transportation initiative, working with African nations to determine what their transportation infrastructure needs are going to be as we look ahead to the next century.
He's got a whole range; he's going to go to two regional conferences, one in Dakar and the other in Harare. He'll also be doing some work on aviation, transportation, and promoting safe skies agreements with a number of countries and also looking to see which countries currently meet the international civil aviation organization standards for safety in aviation, so we can work in closer cooperation on civil aviation exchanges.
Secretary Rubin is separately going to be traveling to Africa July 11th to 18th. He is going to be exploring trade liberalization, regional integration, other aspects of the partnership that deal with our hope for a closer economic with the continent of Africa. Both departments, I think, can give you more on the specific itinerary beyond that.
Q To follow up, is this to bolster the Senate vote on the 17th?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, in part, Secretary Rubin's trip and Secretary Slater's trip, to a degree, will reflect some of the things we foresee as part of the Africa Trade Initiative, and we do hope the Senate will move forward on the legislation that the House has already passed. But this is also a broader strategy of engagement with African nations that the President detailed at the time of his trip. And we indicated then that we would be having Cabinet Secretaries traveling to continue to work through some of the issues the President raised on his trip.
Q Is the Vice President going back? His trip was cancelled.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know the answer to that. I'd have to check with the Vice President's staff.
Q Was it difficult to get the Marshall Islands and Micronesia to vote with us against the Palestinians at the U.N?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. You'd have to ask the U.S.-U.N. mission in New York that question. (Laughter.)
Listen, I'll make a point on that. Unilateral actions that presuppose certain, so-called, final status issues, whether they come to the benefit -- accrue to the benefit of Israel in the minds of some, or whether they accrue to the benefit of the Palestinians in the minds of some, we routinely in both sides indicate we think are detrimental to the effort to help these parties bridge their differences. It's got nothing to do with resolving the real issues that will bring peace in that region and it's got everything to do with short-term political symbolism.
Q What peace initiative? The President has dropped the ball for months now.
MR. MCCURRY: You're entitled to feel that way, Helen, but we're entitled to work hard to try to continue to deepen and work through the issues that are going on.
Q What's happening
MR. MCCURRY: There's been a considerable amount of diplomacy and that we haven't talked about it here recently because it hasn't come on our radar screens -- or your radar screens -- here. But the President, the Secretary of State, and the special Middle East coordinator have all been actively involved trying to get these guys off the dime.
Q Can I follow up that subject?
Q What about an Ireland --
Q Excuse me, I think I was next.
MR. MCCURRY: Susan, okay.
Q Thank you. (Laughter.)
Q Now serving number 23. (Laughter.)
Q This is the second day in a row the White House has had a -- what has tried to be a high profile health care event. Do you think health care is a powerful political issue and do you think it'll be important in the mid-terms? And is that one reason that you're focusing on it so much?
MR. MCCURRY: We think health care is important to Americans, and the President is focused on it because promoting health care opportunities, better health insurance coverage, better health care quality, reminding people when they can get coverage that they are entitled to coverage, and reminding people that they've got to make that available, that's good government. That's also -- if it's an issue that Americans care about it's likely to be good politics as well.
Q What about the gun event that you're planning tomorrow -- the child access issue?
MR. MCCURRY: We will be continuing our efforts to protect children from gun violence tomorrow.
Q What does that --
MR. MCCURRY: A health care issue in some respects, if you want to look at it --
Q What's the thrust of the gun initiative tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: He will be making some new statements with respect to things we can do to protect young people from gun violence.
Q Can you talk about Ireland and the problems that have occurred since Sunday and if that's something that you view as just a minor flare-up or something more long-term?
MR. MCCURRY: We view with a great deal of concern some of the violence that has occurred because it runs contrary to the express wishes of the people of Northern Ireland who have now twice voted for peace over violence. And some have not gotten that message yet. We've been in regular contact with the parties, encouraging them to use their leadership within both communities to discourage violence. Our consulate in Belfast and our embassy in London have both been actively involved, as has the Deputy National Security Advisor here.
We would reiterate that we fully support the leaders in Northern Ireland who have responded with great energy and responsibility to the current situation, encouraging a strategy of peace and encouraging respect for the agreements that have been reached and which have been reaffirmed by the people of Northern Ireland. It's incumbent on all the parties and community leaders to work for the public safety and uphold the law during what has been annually a period that is fraught with a certain amount of emotion, and we hope leaders will lead.
Q As a follow-up, given the reminder of the fragile state of the peace process, is it not now time to see if the President can go to Ireland after the Russia trip, which is now timed for early September?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President has often stated his desire to go to Ireland, but I don't have any travel announcements for you.
Q Can I get back to health care for a minute today? We had an event yesterday, we have an event here in a few minutes, both of them, as we look at them very closely, not earth-shattering announcements. One might suspect that perhaps they're more designed to -- the issue of health care as a political issue.
MR. MCCURRY: You've roasted Mr. Jennings on the barbecue, and if you don't see them as newsworthy, don't cover them. You've got that option.
Q Mike, are you using it as a political issue?
MR. MCCURRY: I just -- I think I answered that earlier when I talked about the issue and its political significance in the fall.
Q There's an aspect of what the President's announcing today, that is, he's using the federal government as a way to leverage action either -- in this particular time of a particular sector of the economy. He's used that kind of a lever many times in the past. Do you think it's an effective one, and what shows that using the federal government --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, and I think it will cross a broad range of market activity. The government is a procurer of goods and services, in this case health insurance. But you see, with respect to labor standards, environmental standards, other areas, that the government, as a business, as a customer, can have broad impacts on markets. And the President, from time to time, has used the commercial activity of the federal government to set some standards. So I think it has been, A, effective, and, B, a way in which you can carry out some of the objectives that the Executive Branch has, absent action on legislation that is tied up in gridlock in Congress.
Q Mike, can you tell us about what's going on in product liability on the Hill, and the White House's position on the current version?
MR. MCCURRY: I can tell you that nothing beyond that we have been working very closely with Senator Rockefeller. You all know that the President has a very strict set of standards with respect to product liability reform and a bill that does not meet those standards is subject to veto, as he's exercised his veto in the past. We have worked to craft a piece of legislation that we believe achieves the mutual objective of respect for the needs of consumers, protecting their rights in courts, but also protecting Americans from frivolous and unnecessary and expensive litigation. We've got a good, well-balanced measure that is a product of a lot of hard work by Senator Rockefeller, by the administration. It's been endorsed by Senator Gorton and others, and we hope that legislation moves forward.
Q But it's receiving some opposition from Representative Gephardt and other Democrats. What's the White House doing to work that out?
MR. MCCURRY: Not a surprise. It has been a very controversial area in which both parties have been split. And that's why we went for a measure that we thought would get the broadest possible support from all sides who are interested in the twin objectives of consumer protection and protection from expensive and unnecessary litigation.
Q Mike, Indonesian troops apparently shot and killed five people in Irian Jaya. Have there been any contacts with the Indonesian government on this, and is there any concern about --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know the answer. I'll have to check with the NSC on that.
Q Mike, does the President feel that Major General Hale should be recalled to active duty so he can be court-martialed --
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard anyone at the White House, including the President, take a position on that. You may want to see how they're handling it at the Pentagon.
Q Mike, what would be your answer to the charges --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to answer a hypothetical.
Q Well, in regard to --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not answering a hypothetical.
Q Well, it isn't hypothetical. They're saying that the treatment of Hale compared to McKinney shows a double standard.
MR. MCCURRY: People are entitled to opinions and they often express them.
Q Mike, is there any plan to send a representative to the ceremony of the burial of Czar Nicholas II's remains?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to check with our embassy in Moscow to see if they are. I'm not aware of any.
Q How about Roy Rogers? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Probably.
Q Is the U.S. going to take any action regarding the famine in Sudan?
MR. MCCURRY: AID can tell you a lot more about some of the relief efforts they have underway. They have been for quite some time stressing to governments in that region and indirectly to the government of Sudan the necessity of addressing what was clearly going to be a severe humanitarian catastrophe.
First and foremost, our concern has been about the fighting that has occurred there between rival factions that exist. We've attempted to address that in some of our regional consultations in the Horn, and in addition to that, there has been a considerable humanitarian relief effort, the details of which I think you can get a lot more from at AID.
Q Just one other question on a different subject. Do you think the vote in the U.N. sort of illustrates maybe a decrease in U.S. influence at the U.N. with the peace process or with its European allies?
MR. MCCURRY: It's very similar to similar misbegotten efforts by the General Assembly in years past to inject themselves in what is obviously a sensitive, delicate, and difficult process.
Q Mike, what's the purpose of tomorrow's town hall meeting? And is it really a town hall meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: It's another way in which the President can advance his dialogue on race, in this case using the learned and impressive skills of Jim Lehrer to guide a conversation that will include a number of people selected by PBS, who will engage the President on the subject of what difference a President can make when it comes to race relations in America. It should be an interesting session.
Q Will we have a pool for that?
MR. MCCURRY: You can check with PBS. PBS is handling arrangements for coverage, but I understand they are making a pool available.
Q Mike, the first town hall meeting was a presidential town hall meeting where he was involved. The second one seemed to be he was more sort of a panelist. Now, this one is just a conversation. And at the beginning it was said that he was going to make four town hall meetings. Why has it gone from a crescendo down to just a little bubble?
MR. MCCURRY: I think we've used different formats and different ways to advance what has been a provocative dialogue.
Q Mike, the Pakistan Foreign Secretary was here and met with officials at the State Department. According to reports, unless the sanctions on Pakistan are lifted by the U.S., Pakistan may be forced to sell nuclear material to other countries.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'd ask that you check further at the State Department, but the Deputy Secretary of State is going to engage shortly in some high-level consultations that will be designed to further our interest in restraint when it comes to the development of programs, to remind governments of their obligations under international law and convention with respect to technology proliferation, and to encourage both of these governments that would take steps that would help, in a sense, put the genie back in the bottle.
Q How is he going to do that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've had some diplomatic conversations that we hope will grow into a more useful set of exchanges and dialogue.
Q Does that mean Strobe Talbott is going back to India and pakistan to meet with officials there?
MR. MCCURRY: No. If you've followed the discussion at State the other day, you know that he's about to have some conversations at a different venue. But I'd check further there because they've been briefing about that every day.
Q What about a different venue?
MR. MCCURRY: It hasn't been officially announced yet, but it's in Europe.
Q On the President's tomorrow on guns, is he going to be backing one of the bills pending in Congress, or is he going to be proposing something new and different?
MR. MCCURRY: Say it again.
Q Is the President going to announce support for one of the gun control bills that's in Congress like trigger locks or --
MR. MCCURRY: He's going to talk about ways in which we can protect kids. I'm not going to spill tomorrow's news today. We just had a complaint about that earlier from what I understand.
Q On the China issue again, these military to military -- whatever they are -- military to military contacts that are getting off the ground between the U.S.-China, is that part of the strategic cooperation that the President spoke about?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, we've outlined -- I went through what we announced when we were in Beijing. I've got to check further. I think that probably be now, we've briefed at the Pentagon on exactly this observer exchanges or whatever they are. But the exchange of senior military observers and military visits has served the purpose of helping both our sides understand better the ways in which their militaries operate and project force in a very sensitive region. That has a benefit of reducing tensions, of helping people understand better what the military strategies of both sides are, and in cases in which there might be conceivably be a way in which we would work together -- for example, disaster relief -- to examine what interoperability there is between the two militaries. That's the purpose of mil-to-mil exchanges broadly defined, and it is, yes, an aspect of our engagement strategy.
Q Mike, do you see the Asian economic crisis -- in Pakistan unless sanctions are lifted soon?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that there is an impact of the sanctions that both countries now face because of their misguided decision to conduct nuclear tests. That is having an impact on the economies of both India and Pakistan, although, arguably, the impact is much greater with respect to Pakistan. The impact, whatever the impact is of sanctions, comes at a time in which both countries are also feeling the effects of a border-regional economic crisis.
So the answer is, yes, they have hurt themselves deeply and caused some additional discomfort, if not true pain, for their citizens by taking actions that they should have not taken in the first place.
Q How do you know that? Have we gotten reports --
MR. MCCURRY: You can see the reports. There have been press reports and other reports that we have available on what the impact of the sanctions have been and what the condition of both economies are. And in the case of Pakistan, it is not a happy picture for the people of Pakistan.
Q I thought that they amount of aid was actually so minimal that the --
MR. MCCURRY: It's not aid that's the issue; it's lending authority and credit availability which has been the issue.
Q Can I ask one more question on the event at 2:00 p.m.? You could, of course, enforce the law through the courts if companies are violating the letter of the law. Is it the President's intent here to try to also prompt insurance companies to follow the spirit of the law even if it's not the letter of law?
MR. MCCURRY: Sure. I mean, whatever the accumulated evidence is that the GAO and others have made available, and whatever anecdotal reports there are, it does serve to put a spotlight on a problem. It probably discourages insurance companies from giving the kinds of instructions to their agents that allow them to circumvent the intent of the law. So it does have both the bully pulpit utility and also the utility of putting in practice a set of conditions that affect the federal government as a buyer of insurance services -- medical insurance services. And so that does have some real impact.
Q Would you characterize that a nudge rather than a slap?
Q How about a poke?
MR. MCCURRY: You know, you all are better at characterizing things than I am.
Okay, see you.
END 1:50 P.M. EDT