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A Call For Action On Health Care

In his weekly radio address, Mr. Clinton said Congress has fewer than 75 working days remaining this year, and should take up his proposals on creating a patients' bill of rights and providing prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients.

"Step up to this challenge. Let's get back to work," he said. "The health care of Americans is too important to be sidetracked by partisan politics. The need is urgent, and the time to act is now."

Mr. Clinton cited a study commissioned by the advocacy group Families USA that showed wholesale prices for 50 prescriptions frequently used by older Americans rose by 3.9 percent last year, faster than the overall 2.7 percent rate of inflation at the retail level. According to government figures, prices for all prescription drugs jumped 5.8 percent in 1999.

"Seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes simply cannot continue to cope with these kinds of price increases," Mr. Clinton said. "That's why we must take action to help them - not next year or the year after that - but this year."

The president released the report along with Democratic congressional leaders on Wednesday to argue the need for their plan to add drug coverage to Medicare as an option for all Americans age 65 or older. Administration officials say rising drug prices are a problem for all seniors and want a broad plan - costing $195 billion over 10 years - for 39 million Medicare beneficiaries.

Republican congressional leaders argue that drug coverage should be limited to low-income Americans who need it most. Earlier this month, they outlined a drug proposal calling for private health plans to offer drug benefits and government subsidies to pay drug costs for low-income seniors. Most of the $40 billion they have earmarked for a five-year overhaul of Medicare would go toward the drug plan.

Mr. Clinton said he would sign a patients-rights bill that passed the House more than six months ago - but he added that any alternative legislation that would "leave tens of millions of Americans without federal protections" is unacceptable.

"A right that can't be enforced isn't a right at all, it's just a request," he said. "We need a strong bill that protects all Americans and all plans, not one that provides more cover for the special interests than real coverage for American patients."