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This article was originally published in The Gray Sheet

Executive Summary

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) will serve as congressional liaisons to the president's National Task Force on Health Care Reform. The two were appointed following a Jan. 26 meeting at the White House between House and Senate leaders from both parties and President Clinton and Vice President Gore. President Clinton announced formation of the task force, headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton, on Jan. 25. House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) said at a Jan. 26 Capitol Hill press conference that President Clinton had asked the congressional leadership to appoint representatives to be "a contact point with the Administration" on health reform legislation. Foley appointed Gephardt; Mitchell appointed himself. Clinton's approach is indicative of his strategy of attempting to ensure quicker congressional passage of his legislation by having members of Congress on board early to help work out a consensus plan. Last year, Mitchell and Gephardt both backed bills that included global budgets for health reform, an approach supported by Clinton, but they did not support the Conservative Democratic Forum's bill advocating a "managed competition" model. Mitchell cosponsored the Senate Democratic leadership's "HealthAmerica" legislation (S 1227) that called for a "play or pay" system to expand access to the working uninsured. Gephardt co-sponsored legislation (HR 5502) with Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) that proposed an all-payer health care system. Mitchell's legislative history on health reform contrasts with that of the new Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). Addressing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Jan. 28 in Washington, D.C., Moynihan indicated he remains undecided on approaches to health reform and the issue of taxing employer- provided health benefits. "I don't know what my views are," Moynihan said in response to a question. "The health care issue is a very puzzling one." He also remarked that many of "our health care costs are... really social problems that appear in the guise of medical difficulties." Moynihan is expected to back whatever health care reform plan is sent to the Hill by President Clinton. The official announcement of the president's task force was almost anti-climactic -- a good deal of the public reaction to his choice of Hillary Rodham Clinton to head the group was diffused by floating information about her role the week before ("The Gray Sheet" Jan. 25, p. 3). In addition to the First Lady, task force members include HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and Office of Management and Budget Director Leon Panetta. Hillary Clinton will work with Domestic Policy Advisor Carol Rasco, Senior Policy Advisor Ira Magaziner, and Judy Feder, whom President Clinton described as "the head of our health care transition team." Feder has taken a position at HHS as a senior policy analyst and is joined at the department by fellow transition team members Atul Gawande and Kenneth Thorpe. It is unclear whether Feder's position at HHS is a permanent one. Magaziner is expected to oversee much of the day-to-day operations of the task force, White House aides say. In an interview with his home-town newspaper, the Providence Journal in Providence, R.I., Magaziner described his role as the chief of staff for the task force. The task force will draw on 80 to 100 staffers from the agencies involved. One aide who will probably provide key assistance to Treasury Secretary Bentsen is Marina Weiss. The Senate Finance Committee's chief health analyst has joined Bentsen at Treasury, serving as a deputy assistant secretary in the economics division with responsibility for health and retirement issues. In an introductory speech to HHS employees Jan. 28, Secretary Shalala expressed cautious optimism about meeting the "new challenges" in programs under the department's jurisdiction. Shalala said that "it inspires me that all of us have the opportunity to etch our place in history as the team of HHS employees that helped bring health care coverage and welfare reform, the team that made it possible for America to immunize every single child, the team that contributed to the victory against AIDS and other serious diseases." Shalala cited the fact that Mrs. Clinton has been asked by President Clinton to devote "much of her time and energy to health care and children's issues" as evidence that "our work is so important to the long-term future of the country." Calling HHS "an extraordinary institution with a long tradition," Shalala said she feels "very much a part of that tradition." She recounted how University of Wisconsin economics professor Edwin Witte and his assistant Wilbur Cohen came to Washington in 1935 and "wrote the first Social Security Act -- without task forces...without interest groups nibbling on them and without computers. A sense of history," she recommended, "is important to us as we enter one of those periods in American history in which there may be a major breakthrough in terms of the kinds of social policies we have for the people in this country."

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