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GOP pushing children’s health, welfare plans through House panels

June 11, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Majority Republicans thwarted Democratic attempts Tuesday to spend more to help low-income elderly people afford doctors’ coverage and pushed a bill revamping Medicaid and Medicare toward approval by a House subcommittee.

Separately, the House Ways and Means Committee prepared to adopt a GOP-written measure changing the government’s welfare program, including eliminating coverage for many legal immigrants who become disabled in the future. And a third subcommittee approved a measure aimed at raising $26 billion for the government by auctioning parts of the broadcast spectrum.

The three measures are among a raft of bills beginning to glide through Congress that would implement the budget-balancing deal struck last month between President Clinton and legislative leaders. The Senate has not yet written its versions.

The budget work is off to an amicable start compared to the pitched partisan battles that characterized the 1995 fiscal fight between Clinton and the GOP.

Highlighting that, administration officials sent a letter Tuesday to Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Fla., chairman of the House Commerce health subcommittee, complimenting that panel’s GOP-written measure expanding health-insurance coverage for children and reworking parts of Medicare and Medicaid. The subcommittee was moving toward approving that measure Tuesday.

``Overall, the administration finds much to support,″ said the letter from White House budget director Franklin Raines.

And in contrast to the bitter battles of 1995 that marked Republican efforts to reshape Medicare, the health-insurance program for the elderly, Raines wrote that Bilirakis’ proposed changes would ``strengthen and modernize Medicare for the 21st century.″

But still, firefights are erupting over details.

In one, Bilirakis’ subcommittee used a party-line 14-9 vote to reject an amendment by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., that would have killed a five-year, $2 billion plan to let 500,000 Medicare recipients set up medical savings accounts.

The money instead would have been used to beef up a $500 million program designed by Republicans to help poor senior citizens pay part of the increases in their monthly premiums for doctors’ coverage under Medicare.

That falls well short of the $1.5 billion that the administration and congressional leaders had agreed would be spent to help low-income Medicare recipients pay their entire monthly premium. That premium is expected to rise from $43.80 now to $66.40 by 2002.

``It’s a sham,″ Waxman said. ``They want to sort of pretend they’re living up to the agreement, but they don’t have enough money to protect low-income beneficiaries.″

Republicans said their plan would cover more elderly people, even though each recipient would get less federal help. And they said medical savings accounts have nothing to do with the class-warfare arguments that they accused Democrats of using.

``It has to do with bringing back a decision-making process to the person purchasing health care so the incentive to save money will be there,″ said Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Medical savings accounts, in effect, are government vouchers that recipients could use to purchase health insurance for major illnesses. They could put the rest in special savings accounts for other health expenses. Democrats say the plan would attract rich, healthy people and leave the rest of Medicare overburdened by the needy.

Later, Bilirakis’ subcommittee defeated another amendment by Waxman that would have required expenditure of the full $1.5 billion to pay the entire premium for many low-income senior citizens. The party-line vote was 15-12.

The Ways and Means Committee, which also oversees Medicare, also included medical savings accounts in legislation it approved Monday.

Bilirakis’ subcommittee would provide $16 billion to help up to 5 million uninsured children obtain health coverage, an item White House bargainers won in the budget deal.

But $13 billion of it would be in the form of block grants to states, which would have large leeway for using the money. The administration and Democrats want restrictions tightened to ensure the money goes to children’s health.

To save $16 billion, the measure would also reduce Medicaid payments to many hospitals that serve large proportions of poor people, mostly in urban and rural areas.

The Ways and Means committee’s welfare bill also contains several controversial provisions. It would overturn the Clinton administration’s decision to guarantee working welfare recipients the federal minimum wage of $4.75 per hour.

And while it would restore benefits to some elderly immigrants who otherwise will lose them under last year’s welfare law, it would prohibit aid to an estimated 75,000 others through 2002 who become disabled in the future.

As the committee worked late into the night, Democrats proposed language to both ensure the minimum wage for welfare workers and restore the aid for disabled immigrants. Both of the proposed amendments were defeated.

Meanwhile, the House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee voted 13-12 for a measure that would sell parts of the radio spectrum to businesses. Critics say the $26 billion that backers claim the sale will raise is wildly overstated.

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