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Public help sought for health care

Hatch's bill would set up meetings for input on reform

WASHINGTON — Since Congress long has been unable to agree on Medicare reform or how to cover more people who lack health insurance, Sen. Orrin Hatch figures the public should be given a chance to come up with solutions itself.

He and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a bill Monday that would set up a series of community meetings and Internet discussions nationwide to explore reform possibilities. A citizens group would then synthesize resulting recommendations into a compromise proposal — upon which Congress would be required to vote directly.

"Strange as it may seem, our government has never actually asked the American people what they want from their health-care system," said Hatch, R-Utah.

Meanwhile, he said the number of Americans without health-care coverage rose from 39.8 million in 2000 to 41.2 million in 2001 — as special interests and Congress have been deadlocked over competing reform proposals.

"Clearly, the time has come for a completely different approach," Hatch said at a Capitol press conference.

Meanwhile, Hatch said he expects Congress this year will continue to debate ways to expand insurance coverage and related issues such as providing a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare participants.

"But if we are true to form, we won't get it done. This would help push it" and possibly find compromise around obstacles created by competing special interests, Hatch said.

"The choices to be made — economic, moral, legal and social — will be difficult ones, but the purpose of our legislation is this: to begin discussing these vital issues with those who feel most their impact, the American people," Hatch said.

Within two years of passage of the bill, it would require both houses of Congress to vote on a package of recommendations that emerge from the discussions and the citizens working group that will refine them.

"Never before has Congress voted on a health-care proposal founded upon the direct input of the American public. If enacted, the Wyden-Hatch bill will provide for just such a vote," Hatch said.

Wyden, a liberal who usually disagrees with Hatch on most topics, said, "For decades, the failed concept of top-down health reform has produced the same results: the United States is the only Western industrialized nation that hasn't figured out a way to get coverage for everybody."

Wyden added, "This is a new approach that will let citizens drive the health-reform debate and then force Congress to follow up — by writing legislation that reflects the people's will."