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Red Light-Green Light on Health-Care Reform

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AMERICANS often fail to see a link between their daily lives and what's happening in Washington.

But if Congress passes, and President Clinton signs, a plan to make health insurance portable between jobs, millions of Americans should take notice.

Between 21 million and 25 million people would benefit, says the General Accounting Office. People with preexisting health conditions would no longer have to worry that a job change might mean going without health insurance. Employees who leave salaried positions - and the benefit of group health-insurance coverage - would find it easier to buy individual health insurance that meets their needs.

Polls show that health care remains a top concern of voters. The question is whether Washington can overcome its partisan differences, enhanced by election-year politics, and do what the people want.

The Senate has already settled on a basic plan that has strong bipartisan support, and a promised signature from Mr. Clinton.

House version at issue

The situation in the House is more complicated. Several competing plans - some strongly opposed by Democrats - are up for consideration today in the Rules Committee. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who plays a crucial role in guiding the committee, appears ready to allow his chamber to pass a bill the Senate and Clinton would reject, say Senate Democratic aides and other observers.

The full House of Representatives will vote Thursday on its health insurance plan. ''I think they'll load it up and pass it,'' says Ed Howard, vice president of the nonpartisan Alliance for Health Reform, which supports universal health-care coverage.

By ''loading it up,'' Mr. Howard is referring to various provisions that some House members want to add to the basic plan. One would limit damages awarded in medical-malpractice suits, a provision Democrats oppose. Another would allow people to set up medical-savings accounts that work like individual retirement accounts, an idea that critics charge would help mainly the healthy and wealthy.

The question for Mr. Gingrich and Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas is whether they want to steer the bill toward a presidential signature or not.

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