WASHINGTON — Bernard Brennan, chief executive officer of Montgomery Ward & Co., urged a Senate panel last week to make incremental changes in the health care system instead of the wholesale reform proposed by President Clinton that would require employers to fund premiums for all workers.

“Solving a problem like this with an employer mandate is tantamount to disaster,” Brennan told the Senate Finance Committee.

In his second appearance before a congressional panel in as many months, and again decrying the President’s plan, Brennan advocated insurance reform to eliminate barriers to health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions, and to guarantee uninterrupted coverage to workers changing jobs.

He added that small businesses should be allowed to buy insurance collectively to increase their bargaining power, and proposed medical malpractice reform and standardization of claim forms.

In addition, Brennan advocated a voucher system for the poor to insure adequate protection.

As chairman of the National Retail Federation, Brennan is taking the lead in arguing against employer mandates, which he says cannot be absorbed by retailers, who are continually faced by increased competition. Retailers would be especially hard hit, he added, because it is a labor-intensive industry with many uninsured low-wage workers.

Instead, employers would be forced to eliminate jobs, and Brennan cited studies that show potential nationwide job losses of more than 700,000.

Retailers are working to lower health care costs on their own. More than 80 percent offer their employees some form of managed care, Brennan said. If mandates are levied, they would stifle independent efforts by employers to cut costs.

The issue of whether employer mandates will be levied to fund universal health coverage is still hot on Capitol Hill. The House Health Subcommittee last week narrowly approved an employer mandate in consideration of a stripped-down version of Clinton’s plan, yet it’s in doubt about surviving a vote in the full House Ways and Means Committee.

On the Senate side, opposition also is strong. Sen. John Danforth (R., Mo.) told Brennan during the hearing that the employer mandate “is dead.”