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Despite the failure to work out a bipartisan compromise, leaders of Congress insist they are determined to press ahead with health-reform legislation centering on universal insurance coverage for all Americans.

What folly. The objective is unrealistic and undesirable. Congressional leaders and the White House need to lower their sights. Consider a few key facts:- About 85 percent of all Americans already are covered by some type of health insurance. Of the 15 percent who are not now covered, more than two-thirds will get coverage within the next year. That means less than 5 percent of the population might be classified as permanently uninsured. Surely the plight of a small minority can be alleviated without the sweeping changes now being pushed.

- Labor economists view full employment at roughly 95 percent of the population. Such key Senate Democrats as John Breaux of Louisiana and David Boren of Oklahoma believe a similar standard could reasonably be applied to health insurance coverage.

- A recent study cited by Sen. Breaux estimates that if 91 percent of the public had health insurance it would cover 97 percent of the costs. That 91 percent figure is roughly what could be achieved without forcing employers to finance the bulk of coverage for their workers.

- The objective of health-care reform has always been not just to extend coverage but to reduce sharply escalating costs. Since that already has been accomplished with pharmaceuticals, it is reasonable to think it also can be accomplished with hospital and doctor expenses without massive federal intervention.

The bottom line should be clear: Any plan that involves sharp increases in coverage while imposing artificial limits on costs presents the unacceptable prospect of massive federal restrictions and red tape plus the rationing of health care. The most desirable and effective reforms are still the voluntary kind generated by the private sector of the economy.