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The Utah chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons urged Utahns to support health-care reform bills introduced by House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

And members scoffed at the suggestion that health-care reform is another term for "socialized medicine."After years of debate, "now the time has come for Congress to choose whether or not to effect genuine health-care reform," said Grant Midgely, national legislative council member for AARP, during a news conference Thursday morning.

"The nation is presented with a historical opportunity to provide every American with affordable, high-quality care. . . . If they don't act now, the opportunity will be lost."

AARP is the nation's largest organization for people age 50 and older. The Utah chapter claims more than 150,000 members.

This is the first time in AARP's history that it has supported specific bills, according to Pat Shoemaker, Salt Lake chairwoman.

The organization believes reform must make care available to all Americans, control prescription costs (particularly important for senior citizens on a fixed income) and provide long-term care.

The Gephardt proposal provides universal coverage by Jan. 1, 1999. It creates a new Medicare Part C to cover Medicaid recipients, people who are unemployed and some employees of small business. Employers are required to contribute a majority of the insurance premiums, while low-wage small businesses receive tax credits and low-income people are subsidized.

Mitchell's bill promises 95 percent coverage by the year 2000 without increasing the federal deficit. It achieves this, according to an executive summary, through insurance market reforms, voluntary purchasing cooperatives and incentives and subsidies to small businesses and low-income people. Financing comes in part from cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and a 45-cent tax increase on cigarette packs.

What finally passes Congress will be a compromise, said AARP's Karl Swan. But the Gephardt and Mitchell proposals are good starting points.

Health-care reform is "not just an issue for older people," Midgely said. "It's a burden on the entire family.

"How long do you have to study a program or a problem?" said Ken Greer, AARP. "(Health care) was studied back in Truman's time. . . . Now is the time to bite the bullet. The principles are there."

Midgely said America is the only major country in the world without a health-care plan. "The other countries aren't bankrupt. We are spending more money on health care than anyone else. We're looking for restructuring that will solve the problem of financing" the reform.

"Most of the people who talk about socialism don't know what it means," Midgely said. "It means common ownership of a product."

Since the health-care industry would remain a private enterprise operation, he said, it is not socialized. Instead, the government would make the arrangements to finance health care.

"We do ride on socialized roads and have socialized electric lights," he said. "We have survived that and we will survive a government arrangement to finance our health-care system."