THE Senate Democratic leadership presented its own health-care reform package Wednesday. "HealthAmerica," as it is called, was offered by Senate majority leader George Mitchell of Maine and Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Sen. Donald Riegle of Michigan. No Republicans have signed on. Under the plan, which would be phased in over five years, employers would be required to provide health-insurance coverage or contribute to the federal-state public program, called "AmeriCare," which would also insure the unemployed.
The secretary of health and human services would set the amount employers would pay into AmeriCare. The legislation also leaves it to relevant congressional committees to determine how to raise the unspecified amount of money for AmeriCare - either by taking it from other programs or raising taxes.
The plan includes special help for small businesses, including a permanent 25 percent tax credit toward the cost of their health insurance, a 100 percent tax deduction for the self-employed (up from the current 25 percent), and a full exemption for new small businesses from providing health insurance for their first two years of existence.
Senator Mitchell said the key aspect of this bill is its cost-control provisions.
"The establishment of a National Health Care Expenditure Board and State Consortia are the linchpin of cost-containment provisions, which are estimated to save nearly $80 billion over five years," Mitchell said.
"It is my hope, my expectation, and my intention to enact meaningful health-care legislation in this Congress," he said.
The White House has not offered a health-care reform plan, saying all relevant studies on the issue have not been completed.
"This issue," Senator Kennedy said, "has been studied enough and it's time for action now."
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Tuesday he knows of no comprehensive health-care proposal under development by the administration. He pointed to President Bush's initiative to reform medical malpractice as an example of movement on that front.
Senator Rockefeller said the Democrats "challenge the president to demonstrate" leadership on the issue. "We seek to unite the country in solving the health-care crisis," he said.
Mitchell rejected the notion he was proposing the bill as an opening salvo for the 1992 campaign season, saying there are no political motivations. But in a written statement, Mitchell pressed the White House on the matter. "I challenge the Bush administration to work with us to accomplish this goal, which is vital for the future of our nation," he said.
A wide range of special interests released statements that acknowledge some differences of opinion but a strong interest in working together to enact some form of health-care legislation.
President Jerry Jasinowski of the National Association of Manufacturers called the bill the "first indication that Congress is getting serious about reforming the health-care system that is too expensive relative to the quality of service."
The American Medical Association said it welcomes the Democrats' bill and is ready for "productive dialogue" on areas of disagreement. And John Sweeney, the chairman of the AFL-CIO's health care committee, said the bill "marks a major step toward comprehensive national reform.... If only the administration would join the process."