By  on January 25, 1994

WASHINGTON -- As Congress is poised to take up health care reform in the coming weeks, retailers are screaming louder than anyone else that proposals for mandatory employer-paid insurance could raise costs and eliminate jobs.

Retailing insures just 35 percent of its work force, less than any other industrial sector surveyed by the Employment Policy Institute.

Universal coverage could cost the industry billions yearly in higher health insurance costs, and to deal with the expenses, some observers predict, retailers would cut more than 700,000 jobs nationwide.

In February, when Congress returns to Washington, three House committees and two Senate panels will begin drafting the ultimate reform proposals. They have held dozens of hearings to discern what various sectors think about overhauling the nation's health care system.

The committees already have before them seven major reform proposals.

It promises to be a bruising battle, and retailers won't emerge unscathed.

"This debate will be the biggest we have ever dealt with," said Sen. Phil Gramm (R., Tex.), who is the author of a reform plan that has the backing of the retail community. "I don't believe my bill will be adopted as written," he said. "I don't think anyone's bill will be adopted as written. We'll end up combining bits of each proposal."

Gramm's advice to the retail community on influencing the debate is: educate members of Congress on the effects universal coverage would have.

"The way to be effective is not trying to cut some deal to be sure somebody else is hurt instead of you," Gramm said. "The future of America will be gravely affected by what happens here this year."

Reform in how America pays for Health care is expected to be a key component of President Clinton's State of the Union address, which is scheduled for tonight.

Clinton's 1,342-page overhaul has ignited the debate over employer mandates. While it makes some allowances for small business, it makes few allowances for labor-intensive industries, said Carlos Bonilla, chief economist with the industry-backed Employment Policies Institute.

"It's not small companies vs. large companies in the health care reform debate," Bonilla said. "It's high-labor vs. low-labor. The more people an employer has on the floor, the harder hit the employer will be."

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