`They Should Forget About It And Move On'

Harry and Louise, meet Gale and Rita. Gale Bailey, 75, and his wife have heard enough talk about health reform. Disillusioned by long and fruitless congressional debates, the Baileys sound a lot like the insurance industry's wary TV pitch-couple. "[Congress] should leave it alone," says Gale, a retired cost estimator for U.S. Steel. "All the government is eoing to do is mess things up for the small businessman and confuse things for everyone else." Adds Rita: "National health care would be too expensive."

Skepticism, doubt, and fear. The broad support that Americans evinced a year ago for bold experimentation in health care has dissolved, polls and anecdotal evidence show. A willingness to overhaul what were viewed as pressing social ills--spiraling medical costs and millions of uninsured Americans--has become steadfast acceptance of the status quo. The result: little popular support even for a much-diminished reform package.

That was quite clear from the talk at the 52nd annual Big Knob Fair over the Labor Day weekend in Beaver County, Pa. There, conversations turned easily from prize cattle and pigs to Congress' mishandling of health reform. "They should forget about it and move on," argues Norma Couzens, 70. David Krall, 30, a part-time waiter who is covered by Medicaid, would rather see Washington focus on creating jobs. "I think health care is important, but I don't think [legislators] know what they want," he says.

LESS URGENCY. The talk of the Pennsylvania fairgrounds is the talk of the nation, experts say. Support for President Clinton's health reform peaked after his September, 1993, address on the plan. When the economy picked up, reform seemed less urgent an issue, says Karlyn H. Bowman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Public concern began to grow with what they began to see as a very big and bureaucratic enterprise," Bowman says. She cites an Aug. 15-16 Gallup poll that found 47% of Americans would be relieved if Congress didn't pass a health bill, and 39% would be angry. In contrast, 56% of those polled said they would object if the Administration's crime bill ultimately failed.

Public disenchantment is all the more dramatic in western Pennsylvania, where Democrat Harris Wofford rode the health-care issue to victory in a 1991 election to fill the seat of air-crash victim Senator John Heinz--and, in the process, helped propel reform onto Washington's agenda. Today, Wofford is battling Republican Representative Richard J. Santorum, a health-reform opponent, to keep his Senate seat.

"WAIT AND SEE." Wofford's support of health reform probably won't hurt his campaign--but neither will it win him the votes it did three years ago. If anything, health care appears to have receded to the political back burner, behind crime and employment concerns. Tom Sanders, 26, a mechanical engineer in Pittsburgh, says he would like to see reform but is concerned about what type of overhaul the government could implement. "I know they've passed the crime bill and that's good news, but look at how long that took," he says. "I think we should wait and see how the government makes that work before they take on anything else."

Others aren't so ambivalent: Those with little or no insurance still see health care as a big problem. Martin "Arkansas Troubadour" Lee spends his summers bringing his one-man-band act to state fairs in his converted van. A smoker for 37 years, Lee, 52, is uninsured. "I'd like to see some type of coverage. I don't have one steady employer. But I do work."

Likewise, Mary Anne Kownacki would welcome reform. Ten years ago, a public-transit accident left her with an injured back, a three-day hospital stay, and a $10,000 hospital bill. With her minimum-wage cashier's job at a local pizza shop, Kownacki, 61, will be paying off the medical charges for "the rest of my life," she says. Even so, she has her doubts about what government can do for her: "If there's so much red tape now, I can't imagine how much red tape there'll be once they decide on a plan."

The truth is, people here don't think much of how the government has run its existing health programs, Medicare and Medicaid. Retiree Don Shaffer of Beaver Falls (Pa.) says he is constantly having to make copies of paid bills, Social Security numbers, and identification cards to clear up errors. "It's ridiculous. My wife keeps getting bills for work she never had done. Medicare is the worst," he says. "How is the government going to run a comprehensive health-care system when it can't even run its Medicare program?"

Still, candidates persist. Indeed, say some pollsters, the cynicism politicians encounter back home may spur them to push for action in Washington. At a Labor Day parade in Pittsburgh, Wofford told labor-union members that he isn't giving up on health coverage for uninsured children, ending insurance exclusions for preexisting conditions and allowing the self-employed to write off the full cost of insurance on their taxes. "We can break the gridlock," the 68-year-old senator promised. "We broke it on the crime bill. We can break it on health care." Perhaps. The question is, will anyone care by the time they do?