Thursday, March 18, 1999

Impasse on Medicare

Bullet The issue: How to save Medicare
Bullet Our view: Clinton would make situation worse

PRESIDENT Clinton has helped to block efforts by a bipartisan commission to agree on a plan to reform Medicare. His own proposals would only make the federal health program for the elderly's financial problems worse. But they would be popular, which seems to be the overriding consideration.

A majority of the 17-member commission, headed by Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and Rep. William Thomas, R-Calif., supported a market-oriented proposal but fell one vote short of the 11 votes required by the law that created the panel. The only other Democrat besides Breaux to support the proposal was Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

The proposal would retain the existing fee-for-service insurance but would give the elderly options to choose private-sector alternatives from health-maintenance organizations. It would give seniors a subsidy to help them pay for health insurance but would not pay for all benefits. It would offer an opportunity to protect Medicare from the insolvency that is looming early in the next century.

In his State of the Union address in January, Clinton proposed setting aside 15 percent of the projected budget surpluses to extend the life of the Medicare trust fund. He also said he wanted coverage for prescription drugs.

Dan Crippen, director of the Congressional Budget Office, told the Senate Finance Committee that the proposed transfer of part of the budget surplus would delay the date of Medicare's insolvency but would do nothing to address the underlying problem: rapid growth in the program's spending, which will continue to outstrip revenues.

The director of the General Accounting Office, David Walker, said the president's proposal to shift general revenues to a program largely financed by payroll taxes "could serve to undermine the remaining fiscal discipline associated with the self-financing trust fund concept."

Clinton's proposal of prescription drug benefits would make the financial problem considerably worse, although it would of course be popular with the beneficiaries. It might help Al Gore win the presidency and the Democrats regain control of Congress. Never mind what happens a few years down the road.


Niihau project dies

Bullet The issue: Proposal to launch missiles from Niihau
Bullet Our view: Niihau residents are the losers

KEITH Robinson, one of the owners of Niihau, says the Navy's proposal to launch test missiles from the island is dead. Robinson joins Hawaiian and environmental activists in opposition to the plan, but his objection is entirely different from theirs.

The Navy proposed construction of one or two rocket launch sites, a tethered balloon launch site, roads and an airstrip in conjunction with testing of a missile defense system at the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai. The Navy currently leases 1,167 acres on Niihau. The Navy said the launch sites would have been operated infrequently and would not have disrupted the lives of the residents.

To build a launching site, the Navy needed approval from the State Historic Preservation Office, which required completion of an ethnographic study of the entire island, populated exclusively by Hawaiians.

Robinson objected, saying such a study was "totally unacceptable." He said his family feared that the study would spur Hawaiians living elsewhere to visit Niihau. Visits by outsiders are now almost entirely forbidden and the residents are able to preserve Hawaiian culture in a unique setting. "All kinds of mischief would result," Robinson said.

Except for the ethnographic study, the Robinson family supported the Navy proposal as a way to bring in some money and help keep the community going. The Niihau residents did, too. The main economic activity on the island, the Niihau Ranch, owned by the Robinsons, has ceased operations after years of losses. Most of the people are unemployed and on welfare. They welcomed the chance to earn some money.

In the end it was fear of intrusion not by the Navy but by Hawaiian activists that doomed the project. The losers are the Niihau residents who wanted jobs.


Double standard

Bullet The issue: Prosecution of a general for sexual misconduct
Bullet Our view: A double standard may have been applied to excuse President Clinton

THE plea bargain in the case of a retired Army general accused of sexual misconduct with the wives of subordinates enables the Defense Department to deal with complaints by some congressmen of a double standard.

Soldiers of lower rank had been court-martialed for sexual offenses but Maj. Gen. David Hale had been allowed to retire in February 1998 after allegations against him became public.

Hale has now agreed to plead guilty to eight offenses in exchange for the Army's dropping of nine other charges. These include seven counts of conduct unbecoming an officer -- including having four improper relationships with the wives of subordinates -- and one count of making false official statements. He was reprimanded and fined $10,000 and ordered to forfeit $1,000 in monthly pay for one year.

But the prosecution of Hale leaves another question of a double standard unresolved -- that of President Clinton, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

The Senate refused to remove Clinton from office on the charges brought by the House. Many members of the armed forces must be wondering why he has escaped punishment while his subordinates have not.

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