Governors Shun Health-Care Strife

They urge a bipartisan solution and worry that Washington will dump costs at their doorsteps

AS President Clinton and congressional leaders take their bitter battle over health-care reform to the nation's governors, state executives hope to skirt the kind of partisan fray that has bogged down Capitol Hill.

``If it were up to governors, something could be worked out and it would be quite reasonable,'' said Gov. John Engler (R) of Michigan. ``We didn't try to pretend we could solve every problem that could be specified.''

Democratic Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, commenting after a closed meeting of governors on health-care strategy, agreed: ``We've stayed together pretty well. Let's try to stay the course.''

A first round of congressional advocates argued the issue before the annual meeting of the National Governors' Association in Boston on Sunday. But today is the main event, as Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas and Mr. Clinton deliver back-to-back speeches on health-care reform.

The White House is billing the event as a face-off, as both the Republican and the Democratic National Committees step up strident television ad campaigns. Governors acknowledge the tug of party loyalties, but insist that their spirit of bipartisan cooperation and focus on problem- solving better reads the mood of the nation. They also worry that when the dust settles on health-care reform, they will be left holding the bill.

``We're now at a crucial stage and we have a serious problem: Nearly all the plans are under-funded and when push comes to shove, they're likely to turn to the states,'' says Carroll Campbell (R) of South Carolina, the outgoing association chairman.

The White House is attacking the alternative Democratic plans, he notes, but there could be room for concensus. ``We ought to seek it,'' Mr. Campbell said. ``You can still make great progress and solve a lot of problems.''

In February, the governors unanimously adopted a draft health-care plan calling for a package of core benefits available through employers, portable coverage, tort reform, and the elimination of barriers to state reform initiatives.

``Governor Campbell and I got a lot of flak from our respective parties when we put out our proposed plan,'' Vermont Democrat Howard Dean, the incoming association president, told Monitor editors yesterday. ``Now parties on Capitol Hill are hardening positions even more.''

``Why wouldn't it be a good idea to get Democrats and Republicans together and agree with our unanimous recommendations?'' Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) asked Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine on Sunday. ``If there were a bipartisan agreement on these, at least the country would know and we wouldn't be left with nothing at the end of the year.''

When Clinton launched his campaign to sell health-care reform, he took it first to the nation's governors. He assured governors that they would not be left out of the reform process. A year later, many credit him with including them. ``The first public officials that had input into the plan were governors,'' said Governor Dean. ``We've had unprecedented access.''

But to be listened to is not always to be heard. Federal regulations and unfunded mandates still weigh on state initiatives. ``Our goal is to keep the feds from putting up barriers to what we have achieved,'' says Washington Gov. Mike Lowry (D).

Medicaid alone will cost state governments $77 billion and the federal government $96 billion in fiscal year 1995, according to the National Governors' Association. The 1981 contribution for each was $17 billion.

Forty out of 44 GOP senators support federal Medicaid caps offered in the Dole health-care reform bill, but Republican governors are not falling in line.

``No one in Congress delivers services,'' says Campbell. ``We as governors have to be concerned with how it works. We have a common thread they may not have in Congress. We don't print money. That's why we're so adamantly opposed to caps from Washington.'' Federal Medicaid caps, he said, allow Congress to limit its exposure, but do not allow states to limit theirs. ``GOP governors are comfortable with the Dole plan with the exception of caps,'' he told the Monitor.

``The Dole bill by our estimates will put $80 billion on our plates over a five-year period because of the cost of capping benefits,'' said Governor Romer. ``That's the largest federal mandate we've seen in a long time and we don't need that one.''

After years of complaining about the burden of unfunded mandates, governors say they are beginning to see progress. Last month, the Senate Government Affairs Committee unanimously endorsed a bill to restrain unfunded mandates.

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