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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release June 4, 1999
                             PRESS BRIEFING
                            FOR HEALTH POLICY

                            The Briefing Room

1:26 P.M. EDT

MR. TOIV: This is not embargoed and this is on the event that will be taking place this afternoon, the disabilities event. So, Chris, if you can handle one more.

MR. JENNINGS: I'll be short and sweet. Today, the President is going to be participating in an event with the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities. The President is going to be presenting awards to a number of employers in the community, private sector employers who have provided innovative ways to provide for coverage for individuals and additional assistance for people with disabilities to work.

There are two things that will be occurring at this awards ceremony that are worth noting. First, the President is going to make a very, very strong pitch for the Congress to pass the workers' incentives improvement act, the so-called Jeffords/Kennedy/Roth/Moynihan/Lazio/ Waxman/Bliley/Dingell workers' incentives improvement act that has received clearly a lot of bipartisan support. He's going to challenge the Congress and request that the Congress present to him a bill by no later than the 9th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which is July 26th.

The President is going to make a point that, notwithstanding some of the discussions to the contrary in Washington that nothing can be done and everything's partisan, he's very, very happy that this legislation has gotten such bipartisan support. And it is his hope and expectation that we can break down any other barriers to getting this legislation passed, because this legislation is going to break down major barriers for people to go back to work.

And for those of you who don't know what this legislation does, it provides for a series of provisions, most important of which is the ability for people with disabilities who are on Medicare and Medicaid to go back to work without losing those eligibilities and to be able to buy into those programs.

Seventy-five percent of the population of people with disabilities in this country are unemployed. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in this country's history, and the idea that we don't take advantage of that resource we think is criminal and wrong, and it's a loss as much to the economy as it is to the people with disabilities who want to work.

The great, great majority of these individuals want to work, and most cite as their primary barrier to going back to work, their fear of losing coverage. Because if you are a person with a disability and you go back to work and you don't have access to insurance, you will not be able to access affordable insurance in the individual marketplace because of a preexisting condition.

This legislation, our hope is it will move very quickly to get it passed. The President will make a very strong pitch for it, and that's going to be the focal point of his remarks. However, he's also going to be signing an executive order instructing the Office of Personnel Management to provide for a parity in hiring practices for people with mental disorders or psychiatric illness, in much the same way we do for people with physical disability in this country. It will provide an added protection or benefit to these individuals, particularly for those people who have been working in the work force and want to become eligible for competitive employment track within the federal work force.

This is a critically important provision that has been advocated by the President's council. He's happy to sign this, and he very much appreciates the leadership of Janice LaChance in working. As you may know, when the President signs an executive order, that means that it has the effect of law until and unless a president overturns it into the future.

We believe that this initiative provides not only an important contribution towards eliminating barriers to work, and highlighting the issue of complementing the importance of moving towards legislation like Jeffords/Kennedy/Roth/Moynihan, but also helps foreshadow much of the work that we're going to be doing in the mental health conference on Monday.

That's my presentation. Any questions?

Q I should have asked this at one of your earlier briefings -- (laughter) -- but what's the role of Mike Wallace, again, and will he be here?

MR. JENNINGS: Mike Wallace will be at the primary plenary session, which I think is just after 12:00 p.m. on Monday, with all four principals, and he is going to be leading a discussion with Mrs. Gore on some of the mythologies of mental health and to help bring out many of the issues that we hope to highlight at the conference.

As you know, he's had his own personal challenges and he's overcome them with great style.

Q Can you just clarify on this executive order? The Americans with Disabilities Act, I believe already covers mental disabilities, including some psychiatric -- is that not the case? Or is the federal government not covered by that --

MR. JENNINGS: These are work force requirements. This is an issue in which we're providing -- in this case, people with disabilities in the work force have an added advantage in terms of being able to seek employment. It goes back to 1947 when -- I think it was '47, I'll check the date -- but late '40s, when President Truman initiated this President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Our practices at OPM are over 20 years old, in which we've provided for special protections for people with disabilities to be able to access competitive employment status without having to go through the usual national job search as long as they've illustrated they're qualified for the job. This would provide that additional protection for people with mental illness, which ADA would not explicitly cover in the absence of a directive or a regulatory action by OPM.

Q Is there a time frame for OPM to propose rules?

MR. JENNINGS: I'm going to have to get back to you. I think their expectation is within months, if not sooner.

Q Could you explain exactly what the rules are now for hiring practice for people with psychiatric disabilities?

MR. JENNINGS: In terms of -- this is within federal employee work, this isn't a federal work force -- that there aren't any specific protections for people with psychiatric illness as there are for people with physically disabling illness.

Q And that's in a two year time frame, generally? Is that in a two year time frame?

MR. JENNINGS: This is an issue of if you have been hired as an accepted employee and you're working for -- you've worked for two years and you want to go to this new, competitive track, which is a much more high-status employment category within the federal work force, that you do not have to go through the national job search if you have illustrated your qualifications as an employee within that time frame.

Thank you all very much.

END 1:35 P.M. EDT