Old newspaper front page reveals President Clinton grappling with Obamacare-like health reform issues

I’m cleaning out my garage and stumble on a huge bag of old newspapers I’ve saved over the years. I find myself staring at a front page of the Los Angeles Times.

Date: Friday, September 17, 1993.

Headline: “Clinton Says Some Lose in Health Plan.”

“I don’t want to pretend this is all going to be easy,” then-President Bill Clinton said, according to the Times, as he and First Lady Hillary Clinton launched their drive to reform the health care system.

We all know the result.  

Today, we’re seeing that it’s still not easy, and this time we’re talking not about legislation, but implementation.  Story after story has emerged these past weeks chronicling what appear to be the crippling shortcomings of the technology of reform, the halting start of outreach programs, the bureaucratic bungling.

No, it’s not going to be easy.

Clinton certainly knew it. While barnstorming around the country to tout the proposed new plan, he was bombarded by questions from small business owners who were convinced it would hurt their profits and force them to cut workers.

He tried to convince skeptical young workers – today’s “young invincibles” — that the proposal made sense for them, too – though not in the short term.

Again, quoting from that Times article: “The tough choice is that someone like you in the same pool, because you’re young and healthy and strong and unlikely to be sick, might have to pay a little bit more in your insurance premiums so that everybody in the big [insurance] pool could be covered,” Clinton said.

The carrot, he said, was that the reform would ensure that when those young workers were older and not as healthy, they could get affordable care.

He knew then, as officials are surely finding out now, that a new health system couldn’t satisfy everyone.

“I’ve not tried to mask the fact today… that there are some tough choices to be made and that, in the short run, we can’t make 100% of the people winners,” he said.

Two decades later, proponents of today’s new health law also struggle to convince young people to participate. But at the moment, the overriding issue is a very different one.

Can this new system, having survived repeated legislative and court challenges to become the law of the land, survive its own implementation challenges?

The upside of the current situation is that officials can clearly demonstrate that there is overwhelming demand for what the new law offers. The federal system crashed in part from the rush to enroll by tens of thousands of would-be participants.

Now the question is, can that system successfully enroll those people? Or could the new system be brought down from within, from the very demand it created? Is it a victim, not of its failure, but of its own success?

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