Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, Maryland

February 20, 1998

Thank you very much, Mr. Vice President. I want to thank all of you for being here today and particularly those of you who have been active in health care. I thank Secretary Shalala and Deputy Secretary Higgins and Secretary Herman, who worked very hard on this; and Hershel Gober, the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs; and Janice Lachance and Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, all the people who are here from the administration. General Hill, thank you for being here.

I'd like to thank County Council President Leggett and all the local officials who are here. A special word of thanks to Chris Jennings in the White House. You know, the staff people who work on these things never get enough credit. This is great—the Vice President and I get up here, and we give these speeches, and you think how wise we are. [Laughter] And the truth is, there is always somebody making us look smarter than we are. [Laughter] And I'm very grateful to all the people who worked on this, who passionately care about you and people like you all over this country who never get the acknowledgements they deserve.

I thank Beth Layton and all the people here at Holiday Park for the work you're doing. I've been feeling very sentimental here. Twenty-one years ago, I'm almost sure it was 21 years ago this month, when I was a very young public official in my very first office of service, I had the State's first conference on senior citizens affairs. I never will forget it. I had it in the same place where I had my high school prom. [Laughter] And now I have my AARP card. [Laughter] I'm amazed at how farsighted I was back then to be concerned about this.

I thank Marty Wish for his remarkable statement and for reminding us why we're working so hard. The first person I heard tell that story about "As Good As It Gets" was the Vice President. And every time anybody sees that movie, they always cheer. I understand it's going to be disqualified for an Academy Award because it's too close to real life. [Laughter]

I want to thank Representative Morella and Representative Stark for being here and for their efforts to make health care quality a bipartisan American issue, not a partisan political issue. And I thank you both for being here. Thank you very much.

We were going to have one other person here today, a woman named Dian Bower from California, whose son has a very serious illness that's being treated in a veterans military—excuse me, a military managed care program. And she's very well satisfied with it but passionately committed to the concept of a Patients' Bill of Rights. But because of the very difficult weather our fellow Americans in California have been experiencing—I'm sure you've been keeping up with it—she was unable to come. But I would like to thank her for efforts to be here.

I'm pleased to accept this report from the Vice President. I just have to say one word about him. I asked the Vice President to undertake a very—what appeared to be a completely thankless job. When we took office, we had a deficit of $290 billion, and I said, "Look, we have to find a way to reduce the Federal payroll by a minimum of 100,000, and we have to do it without throwing anybody in the streets, and we have to do it without losing the confidence of Federal employees or breaking their morale. They have to feel good about this." In other words, I was asking him to take two and two and make three or five or something other than four. And he worked with the Federal employees groups. Five years later, with the strong support and work and partnership of the Federal employees organization, the Federal payroll is 300,000 smaller than it was the day I took office. And—and—we have had good early retirement programs for the Federal employee. We have worked with them in a constructive way. The Government is working better, and it has freed up money to invest in putting another 100,000 police on the street, in improving education and advancing the environment and doing all these things.

But as part of our philosophy of government, we want a Government that is both smaller and more active, that gives people the tools to make the most of their own lives and acts as a catalyst for new ideas. And that's what we're doing here today. And this is perhaps the best example of all the wonderful work the Vice President has done in 5 years of reinventing Government, of how you can have a Government that's smaller and still does more to meet the real needs of the American people. So I want to thank him for that.

What this report does is point out that we are quite close to making sure that our Federal health plans actually comply with the Patients' Bill of Rights that I have proposed. And today after I speak I am going to sign a directive over here on this desk which directs all our Federal agencies to finish the job by taking the necessary steps outlined in the Vice President's report to me.

Now, I want you to understand clearly what this will mean—just this action will mean to the lives of the American people. With the authority of the Federal Government, we will ensure that a third of all Americans—a third of all Americans—are protected by a Patients' Bill of Rights. Now, that's every person on Medicare, every person on Medicaid, including children and people with disabilities, all of our Federal employees and their families that are covered, all of our military personnel, and members of the biggest health care system in America, all of our veterans and all their families.

A third of the American people will have now a Patients' Bill of Rights that says this: You have the right to know all your medical options, not just the cheapest; you have a right to choose a specialist for the care you need; you have the right to emergency room care wherever and whenever you need it; you have the right to keep your medical records confidential—very important; you have the right to bring a formal grievance or appeal of a health care decision with which you disagree.

And we are proving we can make these rights real now for nearly 90 million Americans. That's how many people we're talking about. And we can do this without increasing the deficit, without burdening the system or consumers. With this step we are setting a standard for the Nation.

But we must not stop here. And that's why I am so glad to see Congresswoman Morella and Congressman Stark here, because now the Congress must pass national legislation to protect all Americans with a Patients' Bill of Rights. We are doing all we can do here with the stroke of the President's pen, but it should be an example that the rest of America should follow.

I know there will be voices of opposition in the Congress and in the health care industry. But every American deserves the protection of a Patients' Bill of Rights. Those of you who are retired Federal employees who are still under a plan, you will be covered today. I bet you feel just as strongly as you did before I came here to sign this that everybody whose not in a plan you're in deserves the same protection. And we need to be clear and unambiguous about that.

I look forward to working together with Members of Congress in both parties who have shown the determination to do something about this. This Patients' Bill of Rights is in keeping with our profoundest obligations to our parents, to our children, to the neediest, to the most vulnerable among us, in keeping with our oldest ideals enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and it is an essential part of our effort and our obligation to strengthen our Nation for the 21st century.

We want the benefits of managed care. We all like it when health care inflation is not going up at 3 and 4 and 5 times the rate of inflation. It gives all of you who are on fixed incomes more disposable income for other things that are terribly important to you. But we must never, ever, ever sacrifice the fundamental quality of care and the security that gives people, knowing that they live in a country that not only has the best health care system in the world in theory, it's the best in the world, in fact, in their lives.

Now, the Vice President talked about some of the things we have been doing in the last several years. A couple of years ago, Congress passed a law I strongly supported that says you can't lose your health insurance if you change jobs because someone in your family has been sick. The balanced budget amendment that I signed into law last year extends the Medicare Trust Fund until 2010. And we now have a Medicare commission meeting and working on how to preserve and protect Medicare well into the 21st century.

The balanced budget law also contains an unprecedented $24 billion over the next 5 years to add up to 5 million more children to the ranks of the insured. And we're working with the States to do that. And Secretary Shalala is doing a great job in working with the States to make sure that we pick up more of these kids that don't have any health insurance. And just last week, I directed Federal agencies with programs with children to do more to enroll children as quickly as possible.

This Patients' Bill of Rights is the next important step to make sure every American family has the quality health care all families need to thrive. It's especially important as our health care system continues to change.

Now, 35 years ago, President Kennedy proposed a consumer bill of rights to protect Americans from unsafe products. He said, "We share an obligation to protect the common interests in every decision we make." Those rights are still protecting us today, those consumer rights, every time we rent a car or use a credit card or buy a toy for a child. The rights we are helping here to establish with the Patients' Bill of Rights will protect our children and our grandchildren 35 years from now and beyond.

This is a good day for America, and I am proud to sign the executive memorandum to ensure the Patients' Bill of Rights to nearly 90 million of our fellow citizens.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11 a.m. in the gymnasium. In his remarks, he referred to Brig. Gen. Mack C. Hill, USA, U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon General for Force Management; Isiah Leggett, president, Montgomery County Council; Elizabeth Layton, vice chair, Holiday Park Senior Center Advisory Council; and Martin Wish, former chair, Montgomery County Commission on Aging.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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