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A Healthy Delay

NEWS that the effort to reform the American health-care system has been put off until next year needn't be greeted with a sense of gloom or defeat.

For decades, previous presidents and Congresses have wrestled with government's role in the complex and intensely personal issue of how each of us maintains or regains health.

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Politicians will toss around blame for inaction like a hot potato this fall, hoping it will land in someone else's lap on election day. Republicans had political motives in not letting President Clinton and Democrats gain credit for passage of such important legislation. But they can also rightly claim that their opposition was in line with the majority of public opinion.

Mr. Clinton sought health-care legislation that would make sweeping changes, partly because of the potential for political gain, but mostly, we believe, out of a sincere desire to address a human need through government action. The approach early on was too secretive and partisan, and he misjudged the public doubt that government social programs can operate efficiently. Yet both he and Hillary Rodham Clinton deserve the nation's thanks for their strong effort to address this significant problem.

Today, nearly 40 million Americans lack health insurance coverage and are vulnerable. Rising medical costs for all Americans have moderated of late, but are expected to rise sharply by the turn of the century.

What next? In the short term, this Congress should pass a bill sponsored by Reps. Fred Grandy (R) of Iowa and Jan Meyers (R) of Kansas and others to revive the 25 percent tax deduction for health insurance for the self-employed. This deduction ended in 1993 but was expected to be part of almost any health-care plan that was passed.

This bill represents what should be a key element of future reforms: individual choices. The right of each American to control his or her own body and health-care decisions, including relying on nonmedical means such as Christian healing, must be maintained.

The fall election campaign can serve the public good if it generates debate on the substance of health-care reform (Who will be covered? What kind of options? How will it be paid for?) and not tiresome finger-pointing over ``Who killed health care?''

Americans aren't against reform. They're waiting for a better plan.

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