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Clinton Pitches Health Plan

President Clinton wants to extend medical coverage to 5 million uninsured Americans as he nears the start of his last full year in the White House, CBS News White House Correspondent John Roberts reports.

"I'm announcing that my budget will set aside more than $110 billion over 10 years to expand health care coverage," Mr. Clinton declared.

Mr. Clinton's plan likely faces a stiff test on the issue on Capitol Hill, where a smaller package of similar initiatives went nowhere last year. But the White House is betting an election-minded Congress will be more receptive to the idea this time as the baby boom generation nears retirement.

And even though it's his last year in office, the president said he was "quite hopeful" that Congress would enact what he called his "very ambitious" proposal.

"I am elated that health care is an issue in the (presidential) campaign," Mr. Clinton said in an Oval Office ceremony. "It's a good thing. It is an issue in people's lives."

The president added that the federal budget picture is brighter now, despite a likely battle over how to spend a huge projected budget surplus. Mr. Clinton noted that Republicans on Capitol Hill do not plan to offer another huge tax cut this year like the $792 billion version they passed - and he vetoed - last year.

"If enacted, this would be the largest investment in health coverage since the establishment of Medicare in 1965, one of the most significant steps we could take to help working families," the president said.

But White House officials refused to say how Mr. Clinton would pay for his costly initiatives. White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said the administration would not release details until the president's budget is unveiled Feb. 7.

More than 44 million Americans lack health insurance, a signature issue for Mr. Clinton when he won the presidency in 1992. Early in his first term, Congress ignored his sweeping proposal for universal health coverage, yet he has made headway on the health care issue since. One administration success involves a major expansion of insurance for children through Medicaid and the state Children's Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP.

The major element of the president's new proposal is to expand the CHIP initiative by providing coverage for parents of children in the program. The White House said the measure would provide coverage for about 4 million uninsured parents at a cost of $76 billion over 10 years.

The president also urged accelerating the enrollment of uninsured children in Medicaid and the CHIP, adding 400,000 children at a cost of $5.5 billion over 10 years. While enrollment in CHIP doubled to 2 million children in 1999, millions remain eligible but un-enrolled, the White House said.

"I am extremely encouraged," said Dr. Jim Blessman, who runs a network of clinics in Iowa for low-income patients. "I've been working for the poor in edicine for at least the last 10 years and it's exciting to hear the politicians now come on board and say 'we want to assist you with this.'"

Another measure in the package would resurrect Mr. Clinton's plan to allow workers as young as 55 to buy into the Medicare program. Congress ignored the proposal last year. This time, the president would make the measure even more attractive for workers and more costly for the government by offering a 25 percent tax credit for participants in the Medicare buy-in.

Tax breaks are also part of the package. The proposal would offer those breaks to help 2 million Americans struggling to provide long-term care for elderly or disabled relatives. Last year, Congress approved a 100 percent deduction for long-term care premiums, but it was part of the Republican tax cut bill that Mr. Clinton vetoed.

Thursday marks the beginning of the last year of Mr. Clinton's presidency. "Tomorrow's the day, isn't it," he said. "I will certainly mark the day." The president added he wished he could go without sleep for the whole year. "I just want to milk every last second of it," Mr. Clinton said.

©2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report

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