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HEALTH-CARE REFORM FACES CRUCIAL ELECTION DEADLINE

SHARE HEALTH-CARE REFORM FACES CRUCIAL ELECTION DEADLINE

Under the pressure of dwindling time, seven members of the influential Senate Finance Committee came up with a compromise health-care reform plan a few days ago that appears to have real promise. At least it is better than many other proposals being circulated in Congress.

Unfortunately, despite those advantages and the bipartisan nature of the moderate approach, the proposal already shows signs of crumbling around the edges. The partisans on both sides seem unwilling to move toward the center staked out by the Senate group.This almost guarantees a bitter fight in both houses of Congress and makes it questionable whether any health-reform bill can be passed at all before the November elections.

The bipartisan plan from the seven senators would drop employer mandates for health insurance, one of the more controversial elements of President Clinton's reform and would seek coverage of 93-95 percent of all Americans by the year 2000 - still short of the president's goal of "universal" coverage.

Much of the plan is a mixture of older ideas, but it does have the advantage of being more modest in its approach. The bipartisan group is headed by Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I.

The package would expand availability of insurance by ending restrictions of pre-existing conditions, portability, etc., and by adopting a community rating system for premiums.

Self-employed people eventually would be able to deduct 100 percent of the cost of health insurance. Low-income individuals would get subsidies to help pay for insurance.

Costs would be contained by insurance market pressure and by a 25 percent premium tax, paid by insurance companies, on expensive insurance plans that exceed a certain amount in each region.

A National Health Commission would later determine the specific benefits to be covered under a standard package.

This latter idea would evade the sticky issue of abortion coverage and other insurance specifics by letting somebody else take the heat and still allow Congress to claim before the November election that it had taken action on health-care reform.

The plan has received mixed reviews. The same Senate Finance Committee has another proposal scheduled this week with the backing of powerful committee chairman Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. Some aspects of the Moynihan plan are based on the package from Chafee's group. Nobody is saying whether it contains employer mandates, but it is unlikely. Employer mandates would never get past the committee or the full Senate.

The House is working on other plans more closely resembling the universal coverage and employer mandates sought by Clinton. Even if they get out of sharply divided committees, the floor debates are sure to be lengthy and severe and any votes will be close.

Given all that still has to be done, and with only four months until November elections, passage of a health-reform measure looks increasingly doubtful. Congress usually recesses during much of August, and since this is an election year, members will want to be home campaigning in October. About 10 weeks may be all the time left for action.

Many members of Congress, particularly Democrats who face uphill fights, would like a completed health-reform bill - any kind of bill - to use as a campaign issue, a signal of a presidential promise kept to voters.

But given the shaky reception for the latest moderate compromise and the sharp differences between House and Senate views, the chances for any pre-election health-care reform appear slender at best.