Press Briefing by Dee Dee Myers
The Briefing Room
2:00 P.M. EDT
MS. MYERS: It's a pleasure to be here. Let's review. (Laughter.) This is a class on universal coverage. (Laughter.)
Q: What does that mean, exactly? (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: That's right. Just to recap over the last few days -- yesterday, President Clinton met with a man named Jim Bryant who works two jobs, 70 hours a week, and is still unable to provide health insurance for his family. Those are the kind of people that President Clinton is trying to help.
He is committed to providing health insurance in law to every American. According to a poll in today's New York Times -- CBS -- eight out of 10 Americans share that objective; 80 percent of Americans believe we ought to extend health care to everybody. President Clinton remains totally committed to that objective.
If you look at some of the studies that we've seen over the last couple of days, today Secretary Bentsen presented a study that showed millions of Americans in states all across this country remain uninsured. Lewin VHI and the Catholic Health Association released a study showing that nonuniversal plans threaten to leave middle-class Americans uncovered. These are exactly the kind of people that the President is committed to helping, to guaranteeing coverage, guaranteeing benefits for these people.
There's been a number of people recently, including the AARP, that have come out this week in favor of universal coverage. The President is going to continue to fight for that goal.
Are there any questions?
Q: Why did the President decide yesterday, after weeks of not doing it and your refusing to do it from the podium, to enter the numbers game in defining universal coverage -- throwing out 95, 96, 97 percent?
MS. MYERS: That wasn't a definition. The President has said time and again that he will sign a bill that includes universal coverage, that provides health insurance to every American in law. That is what he's fighting for; that has not changed. There has been absolutely no change in that objective.
Yesterday he was talking in a more limited fashion about what the practical implications of some policies are. And I think he tried to make the analogy between Social Security, where clearly that is a universal benefit, that is something that applies to everybody, and yet 98 percent of people are covered; 2 percent of people for one reason or another slip through the cracks and don't take advantage of that benefit. The same thing is probably true for health care.
But I think one of the points the President wanted to make and will continue to make is, who are we going to cover? What are the circumstances that this health plan will apply to? If you lose your job, you will not lose your coverage under President Clinton's plan. If your child gets sick, you will not lose your coverage. If you have a preexisting condition, you do not have to worry about losing your coverage. If you can't afford it, you're already covered. If you're rich, you're covered. If you're in jail, you're covered. If you're a member of Congress, you're covered. If you're the President, you're covered. The President wants to guarantee that same coverage to middle-class Americans.
Q: One further question -- why did he decide yesterday to say that he would accept something without mandates, provided that it got to his goal?
MS. MYERS: He's always said that. From the very beginning he said he'd be willing to compromise on means to get to universal, but not on the objective of universal.
He's said time and again that he believes employer mandates are the best, fairest way to get to universal coverage.
Q: I believe he said "only way" at one point.
MS. MYERS: No, he's always said that he would look at other ways. He has said many times, Congress if you can find a better way, let me see it; let's look at it; let's talk about it. He hasn't seen a better way, quite frankly.
Q: You're telling us that the President is not sending any signal of flexibility on his goal of universal coverage, such as, you can get to it more slowly, you can get to it --
MS. MYERS: The President has made it clear that he's flexible about how to get to universal coverage. He proposed a plan that phased in benefits over a period of time. He's willing to look at plans that phase in benefits. He proposed employer mandates as the best way to cover everybody, but he's willing to look at other ways.
The one thing that he's not willing to look at is plans that don't cover everybody. He's said repeatedly that if you don't cover everybody, what's going to happen -- and what we've seen happen in 40 states around the country that have tried incremental reforms, that have tried insurance reforms -- is that as not everybody is covered, as reforms are implemented costs go up for people that are in the program and more and more people opt out of the program. That's the kind of thing he's avoiding against.
If you listen to what he said over the last few days, he keeps saying what I want is a plan that works. And the only thing that he believes works is a plan that covers everybody.
Q: Would a hard trigger get you there at some point?
MS. MYERS: There's a lot of ways you could get there at some point. He said he's willing to look at other things first but it has to include a guarantee of universal coverage.
Q: And by citing Hawaii which only covers 96 percent of the people, but is cited as universal coverage, he's using that as an example of what would be an acceptable number of --
MS. MYERS: No, what he said about Hawaii is Hawaii has universal coverage. They have written into their law a plan that covers everybody. Now in practice it covers 96 to 98 percent of the people.
Q: 96 percent.
MS. MYERS: It depends on who you ask, I think. But the governor says it's 98 percent.
Q: No one else does.
MS. MYERS: Well, I am a big fan of Governor Waihee and I will continue to quote him. But if you look at Germany, another country that has universal. I don't think that anybody would argue that Germany does not have universal coverage, and, yet, it really only practically applies to about 98 percent of people. And I think they work all the time to try to fill the gaps and close the cracks.
Q: What would meet the President's definition?
MS. MYERS: What would meet the President's definition is a guarantee in law that all Americans will have health coverage.
Q: When he came into the White House last night, he said that it's now the burden is on others to come up with a plan. What does he expect to see happen this week and next? And what did he tell the congressional leaders that he wants -- that he's done his part and he wants them to produce now?
MS. MYERS: Well, he told them that he will work with them over the course of the next -- they talked about a number of things at the meeting this morning. It wasn't specifically on health care; it was on health care and crime and a number of other things. But on health care, he said -- he reiterated his commitment. He said, what I am committed to -- and you heard him say it -- is a plan that covers everybody. We're going to have to work with the House and Senate to try to figure this out. You guys will have to work it out between you.
Q: But he's also said he's got his plan, and he hasn't seen an alternative yet that does. Is the ball now in Congress's court, that they're going to have to come up with a formula or else accept his?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think they're going to have to come up with a formula, and I think he's going to continue to press them to make sure it's a formula that guarantees coverage for everybody. It is up to the leadership in both houses now to meld the plans that have been passed into an acceptable proposal. Obviously the President's going to do everything he can to encourage progress. But it's up to the leadership in both houses and the members, quite frankly.
Q: Dee Dee, a couple of weeks ago, the phrase was "coverage by date-certain." Has that gone out the window?
MS. MYERS: It has not.
Q: I mean -- guarantee in law all Americans will have coverage, is that by date-certain?
MS. MYERS: That is within a reasonable amount of time and by a date-certain.
Q: Dee Dee, whether the President meant to send a signal yesterday or not, apparently some members on the Hill are taking it as that. I'm told that House Appropriations Chairman Obey has said in a statement that he released that if the President means what he said yesterday, then Obey's off the reservation on health care and you can count him out. What concerns --
MS. MYERS: I think the members of Congress should be reassured that the President's bottom line has not changed. There is no difference here. The President is still committed to universal health care, to guaranteed benefits in law that cannot be taken away. There's been no change in that.
Q: Has he talked to Obey, or are you planning any meetings with people like Obey of a similar mind who would have such concerns?
MS. MYERS: The President met this morning with the House and Senate leaders and reiterated his commitment to guaranteed coverage for everybody. I'm sure that they will take that back to their members. Certainly, the President will continue to meet with members of Congress throughout this process, particularly over the next couple of weeks, as they hammer out a solution to this problem.
Q: Who is he meeting with this afternoon?
MS. MYERS: He has a couple of meetings lined up, and I think our posture is not going to be to release those names ahead of time.
Q: Are they coming over here?
MS. MYERS: Yes. I think you can expect that on a regular basis, there will be members of both the House and Senate that will come to the White House to meet both with the President and with other members of the staff.
Q: Has he modified the veto threat at all, or does the veto threat stand that he'll veto any bill that doesn't cover all Americans?
MS. MYERS: The veto threat has not changed. Essentially, what the President said is that he wants a plan that works. He believes the only way that you can get genuine reform, control costs and cover everybody, or get what you want, is to cover everybody. And so that's what he's going to continue to pursue. God, it's like a movie theater in here; it's dark.
Q: Did the President and Senator Mitchell discuss health care strategy on Monday night, either in person or by phone?
MS. MYERS: They discussed a number of things. As you know, Senator Mitchell spent Monday evening with the President, including health care. I don't know whether they reached any specific agreements on strategy. I wouldn't read too much into it, but they certainly discussed a number of issues.
Q: Did the President indicate to Senator Mitchell on Monday night that he was going to be talking about flexibility and so on, on Tuesday before the governors?
MS. MYERS: No. Again, the President was talking to a very specific audience yesterday, and he was talking to them in some technical detail about what's practically possible. The bottom line is that his commitment to universal health care has not changed.
Q: Yesterday when he was talking to the governors, though, he did use the phrase "95 percent" and seemed to signal the Senate Finance Committee bill. Was he saying that that is absolutely the floor, the lowest that he's willing to accept is the Finance Committee bill, or 95 percent?
MS. MYERS: If you go back, the President has said he's not sure that the Senate Finance Committee bill would get you to universal. So there is no floor.
Q: Where did the 95 percent come from?
MS. MYERS: The President said today, earlier today in the pool spray that that was in sort of a broader financing discussion about triggers. And if you go back, some of the proposals included numbers like 95 and 96 percent. He was not signaling any commitment to any number at all. There is no number. The bottom line is, a commitment in law to cover everybody.
Q: Was he signaling his support of any specific bill or any specific approach, specifically the Finance bill?
MS. MYERS: No, he was not. He, again -- and one of the things that he'll continue to say is, he'll have to look at all of the details of any proposal, because the bottom line is that the plan has to work. And as he said throughout this debate, unless everybody is covered, the plan will not work. And as we've seen in 30 out of the 40 states that have tried incremental reform, many times the situation is actually made worse by reforms that drive up the cost for people -- that don't cover everybody, drive up the costs for those who are buying insurance, and force other people off of insurance. And so that's one of the things he's going to work very hard to avoid. The plan has to work, it has to work for middle-class people.
Q: Now that you all have had a chance to review the text, do you still see Senator Dole's speech yesterday as a sign of flexibility?
MS. MYERS: I think we'll see. I think clearly his commitment to stay in over the recess, if that's necessary, was perceived as a commitment to work through this. We'll see how Senator Dole responds in real life over the course of the next several weeks. I think we're hopeful that he will genuinely be committed to health care reform. Again, 80 percent of Americans believe we should do it -- 70 percent would like to see it done this year, although they're not so sure that it'll happen for political reasons. I think that's a discouraging fact for a lot of people.
What the President wants to do is get something done this year. He's been pushing for that from the very beginning.
Q: Can we change to Haiti?
MS. MYERS: Any other --
Q: One more on health care.
MS. MYERS: Paul, the answer is no. (Laughter.)
Q: At the risk of redundance, if what comes out of Congress guarantees in law universal, and they say it covers everybody, but in fact it covers only 95 percent, that is acceptable to the President. Is that what you're saying?
MS. MYERS: I think if the guarantee is in law that it covers everybody, then we'll work to cover everybody. I don't know that you'll be able to tell. I think one of the things that the President said is that even with Social Security, which is a universal program, you don't cover everybody, I don't think we'll know how many people -- if there's going to be slippage or how much it would be. I don't know if that's something that you can know up front.
Q: Well, what about the converse of that, Dee Dee? If the bill comes out of Congress and it expects -- if implemented, this would cover 95 percent of the population?
MS. MYERS: I don't think there are any bills that say anything like that.
Q: When Moynihan came out with his, he said his bill would cover up to what, 96 percent when he presented his? So if that's what came to the President's desk, is that acceptable?
MS. MYERS: I think, again, we're not going to get into a specific numbers debate.
Q: Too late.
MS. MYERS: We are? (Laughter.) I hadn't noticed
Again, what he wants is a bill that in law covers everybody, that doesn't limit it in law. In practice, we'll have to see, and I think it will depend on how the bill is structured, whether the President thinks that it will work.
Q: What's the flaw under this -- fraud, excuse me.
MS. MYERS: A fraud is a bill that didn't cover everybody, that left middle-class people uncovered, which drove up the cost for people that were still on the plan. If you look at what CBO has said, what Lewin and Catholic Health Services have said about plans that don't, or reforms that don't cover everybody, they say that the Lewin VHI study said it could drive up the average cost of a policy for a middle-class family $450 a year. That, to the President, would be a fraud.
Q: Okay, but, for example, a bill that purports to -- that states that its intention is to cover everybody but only has funding that can be demonstrably shown to cover some fraction of that, that would be a fraud right?
MS. MYERS: Well, it would depend. I'm not going to get into a hypothetical debate. I think what the President -- would have to look at the specifics of any given bill and make a determination --
Q: How about the Senate Finance bill? Is that a fraud?
MS. MYERS: The Senate Finance bill is only the product of one committee and the President has said he's not sure that it would get to his objective, which is universal.
Q: Nobody's surprised that the President would have to compromise. But I guess what's throwing everybody is the way that they're kind of zigzagging on the compromise. Do you feel there's a way that you can come off principle and compromise in a way that is positive and doesn't convey this impression of disarray and chaos?
MS. MYERS: Sure. I think that the President, in the beginning, submitted a very detailed plan that gave a very clear road map of how to get genuine broad-based health reform.
He's already shown willingness to compromise. We went from mandatory alliances to voluntary alliances. There's been a number of other places where the President has shown willingness to compromise. The one thing that he's not willing to compromise is on universal care. He proposed employer mandates as a way to get there. He still believes that that's the best, fairest way. But if Congress comes back to him with a plan that he believes will get us to universal, he will look at it.
I think the one thing the American people should know, that members of Congress should know, that all of you should know is that there's been no change in his bottom line.
Q: But is this an effective way to compromise and negotiate with Congress at this point -- send out this signal of confusion?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think, again, if there is any confusion, that we're working very hard to make clear that the President's bottom line has not changed.
Now, certainly, I think the President has signaled flexibility throughout this process on the means of getting there. Congress has applauded him for that. The President believes that many of the changes put forward by Congress have been positive and have improved on his plan. But he does not believe health reform will work unless everybody is covered.
Q: Back to the percentage -- at some point, after a bill is passed, CBO, OMB, somebody's going to have to score it and figure out who is going to be covered; because they're going to have to decide what the subsidies are going to be, what the cost to the government is going to be; what the entitlement cost is going to be.
MS. MYERS: Correct.
Q: Now, at that point, then, if it's 95, 91, 96, 98 percent, the President will then have to decide, is that universal -- if it's 95 percent, 91 percent, whatever. Now, does he have in his mind somewhere where he said yesterday that 95 percent or better is universal? He's already said 91 percent is too low. Is there a percentage that he has in his mind?
MS. MYERS: No, he will look at whatever Congress proposes very carefully and decide whether or not he thinks that gets us to universal. If he thinks it gets us to universal, he'll sign it. If he doesn't, he won't.
Q: But in his mind, he has to --
MS. MYERS: No, I don't think -- that's not true.
Q: he's already said it's not 100 percent, and he said it has to be at least 95 percent. So therefore, are we incorrect to assume that somewhere between 95 and 100 percent is universal?
MS. MYERS: I think universal is a bill that guarantees benefits in law for everybody. And Congress is going to produce a plan. If the President believes that that plan gets us to universal coverage, he'll sign it.
I think in about five minutes, the escorts are going to start for the Apollo event in the East Room, so let's move on.
Q: I know you want to continue to talk about this, but --
MS. MYERS: Yeah, I have a few more things I want to say again. (Laughter.)
Q: The new Panamanian president came out today and seemed to indicate that his country would be willing to take up to, give or take, 10,000 temporary refugees that would be put on U.S. bases for no longer than six months. Is that satisfactory to the administration? And what happens after those six months?
MS. MYERS: That's something that we'll work out with the President-elect once he becomes President. Obviously, we're grateful to him for his willingness to accept additional refugees, to create a safe haven in Panama. And we're working on the details of that. I don't think we can speak to the final details.
In the meantime, we're doing two things. One, we're working very hard to deal with the refugees that we've already picked up and are processing. There were, I think, 37 picked up yesterday. As of an hour ago, there hadn't been any picked up today. I don't think we're willing to draw any conclusion about the continued outflow of refugees. At the same time, we're pursuing a policy of tightened sanctions, which we think are beginning to bite. We think it's time for the military leaders to leave now -- not six months from now, not three months from now. We'd like to see them leave now, and we're committed to resolving this problem as soon as possible.
Q: Also, Richardson today on various television interviews seemed to -- well, did characterize Cedras as a reasonable man, somebody who's politically astute, somebody who's concerned about the welfare of his country. Do you buy into any of those characterizations? And do you still stand by the characterization that he's running a government that is responsible for massive torture and rape?
MS. MYERS: Absolutely. I haven't seen Congressman Richardson's comments from -- I think he had a press conference at 11:30 a.m. today and may have done additional press -- I haven't seen it. It is absolutely our contention that that is an illegal and illegitimate government, a regime that the military leaders have been party to an atmosphere of terror and human rights abuses and that they must go.
Q: Did you send Richardson as an emissary to meet with Cedras?
MS. MYERS: No, he did not go in an official capacity.
Q: Walk us through the tick-tock? How that mission originated? What kind of cooperation you received from the White House? What kind of briefings did he have in advance and what kind of reporting did he do when he returned?
MS. MYERS: I don't know what the exact origin of his trip was. He went to several places in the region. He was briefed in advance by administration officials, I believe, both in the White House and the State Department about our policy in Haiti, about what we know and what we've seen happening there. He returned and, I believe, has spoken to one NSC official and I expect that he will talk to others over the course of the next day or so.
Q: Did the President ask him to brief the congressional Democrats this morning?
MS. MYERS: No, they didn't get into foreign policy at all. He, I think, spoke very briefly to the President at the end of the meeting. He spoke very briefly to Tony Lake. I think Tony and others expect to talk to him with him in some more detail some time in the next few days.
Q: How would you describe his relationship with the White House in terms of this mission that he undertook?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think that he was, again, briefed ahead of time. I think we're very interested in his observations. It wasn't any kind of an official White House mission; certainly, official in his capacity as a member of Congress and as a member of the Democratic leadership. But, again, we're interested in what he has to say about this, and we will certainly look forward to hearing from him.
Q: You said that you want the military in Haiti to leave immediately. Mr. Gray is quoted this morning in USA Today as saying that he wants them out by the first of October.
MS. MYERS: I think the question, if you go back and look at how the question was phrased, I think it was do you expect him to be there in October. And he said, no, he expects them to be gone. And we expected them to be gone -- it would have been right for them to be gone months ago or weeks ago or today. We want them to leave immediately but there is no deadline.
Q: And a follow-up -- will the President consider meeting with Mr. Richardson since he spoke so long with General Cedras? A long meeting, not just a side --
MS. MYERS: I would imagine if Mr. Lake or others recommended it, that the President would consider it but I don't think we're there yet.
Q: Dee Dee, does the administration hold out any hope now that Endara might change his mind and allow Haitian refugees in before he leaves power?
MS. MYERS: I don't know. I don't know that we've had any conversations with him since the week we were in Europe.
Q: Is the U.S. asking Balladares to try and get Endara to change his mind?
MS. MYERS: No, I think we're proceeding in conversations with Balladares. They're from different parties and I'm not sure that that would be an appropriate channel. We have had conversations with Endara and his government and those conversations go on, but I'm not sure we have high expectations for a change in policy.
Just to point out, we have, obviously, have had good results in other places. Processing centers in TCI and the Bahamas, I think, are operating. And we've reached agreements for safe havens from a number of countries which we've actually got hard agreements from several countries and we are in the process of several others, including St. Lucia -- which I don't know if we've announced from this podium yet -- Grenada, Dominica, Antigua, others. So, we've made good progress and we're still in conversation with other countries in the region.
Q: Sounds like Bermuda, Bahamas --
MS. MYERS: That's a good name for a song.
Q: Do you have any reports of increased repression, particularly in the countryside, aimed at keeping people from taking to the seas?
MS. MYERS: There's been reports of increased repression, generally, which is one of the reasons that we've sort of changed our processing policies.
I don't know if we've concluded yet that it is tied to keeping people from leaving.
Q: Is there anything that you can point to in terms of any kind of sharp increase since the human rights monitors were kicked out?
MS. MYERS: No, I don't think I have anything specifically tied to that date of last week. Certainly, we organized teams from the embassy there to go out and try to make up ground in observing refugees who were returned, and in monitoring human rights generally. And they're, I think, doing the best they can under the circumstances.
Q: Dee Dee, the DNC is about to recommend Chicago as the site for the convention. Is this okay with the President? Will he go along with this recommendation?
MS. MYERS: Chairman Wilhelm will make a final recommendation to the President. He has not done that yet. The DNC is still talking with a number of -- I guess they're talking in more detail with Chicago, but they have not concluded an agreement with anybody. Again, Chairman Wilhelm will make a final recommendation to the President. Ultimately, it's the David Wilhelm's decision. And they expect to announce it sometime within the next couple of weeks.
Q: Is there any inclination or anything you could tell us, though, about whether or not the President would be agreeable or amenable to signing off on Chicago if the details could be worked out?
MS. MYERS: I think that if -- he will certainly take Chairman Wilhelm's recommendation quite seriously. I think he's indicated a willingness before to accept Chicago as a convention site.
Q: Do you have any -- has Mr. Panetta made any changes in organization or personnel yet?
MS. MYERS: Not that I know of.
Q: Do you expect them?
MS. MYERS: He said he would make some changes, that additional changes would come. I don't know where he is exactly in that process. But I think he's reviewing staff and structure, and I think he will certainly make recommendations as a way to improve overall operation. And exactly what those look like, I think we'll have to wait and hear from Leon.
Q: Regarding the Whitewater hearings next week, does the President share the opinion of some of his senior aides that Republicans are using this as sort of a political witch hunt? And if so, what is he going to do about it?
MS. MYERS: I think that the President has made it clear that he expects staff to comply, and we have complied fully with all phases of the inquiry.
END 2:24 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Dee Dee Myers Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269708