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Drive for a Health-Care Plan May Not Meet September Deadline

Lack of consensus in Congress could force debate into 1995

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THE problem is not that Congress is not busy enough on health care.

A House subcommittee is busy marking up the first comprehensive health-care bill to march through Congress, a bill well to the left of the Clinton plan.

A Senate committee spent March 20 and 21 at a Virginia resort debating merits of mandating that employers buy insurance for workers, a tough choice facing Congress.

But for those who follow health-care reform closely, the surprise is that the issue has not made any progress toward consensus on Capitol Hill.

``Members of Congress don't want to go home in September without having done anything. On the other hand, it's March 21, and we're nowhere,'' says Joshua Wiener, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who participated in the White House task force that forged the Clinton plan.

``I am surprised,'' says Michael Bromberg, a lobbyist for the health-care industry. Three months ago, he put the odds at 90 percent that Congress would produce a health-care bill this year. ``Now it's 60 percent and moving toward 50-50.''

``There's no sign of consensus yet anywhere,'' he says.

``There's less consensus now than [last] September,'' says Mr. Wiener.

``It's murky,'' says Joseph White, another health-care expert at Brookings. ``Lots of people don't know what they're for.''

The public still has little grasp of plans proposed in Congress, including the best-known, the Clinton plan. And many members of Congress have not sorted out yet what they can support and then defend back home.

The White House is trying to penetrate the fog a bit as the president has stepped up his promotional efforts for his plan. The Clinton team has distilled his plan into five points: a guarantee of private health insurance for all, job-based health insurance, choice of doctors, a ban on insurance practices that exclude people, and the preservation of Medicare.

The House has roughly until July to send a bill to the Senate, which is giving the House the lead. That would leave Congress minimal time to turn out a conference bill in September before the entire House and a third of the Senate - except for those retiring - go home to stand for reelection.

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