With several Hollywood health plans increasingly on the losing end of the battle with soaring medical costs, a frequent topic of conversation among industry unions and employers is how things will change once a national health care plan is enacted.

The much-anticipated unveiling of the Clinton Administration’s health care plan, which the president vowed Wednesday would happen by the end of this month, has had its effect on Hollywood:

o Last month, it led to the postponement of contract talks between the producers and members of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees on a new film and TV pact.

o It has caused other health care plans to step up stockpiling reserves in anticipation of how the legislation could affect multi-employer, collectively bargained plans such as the ones within this industry.

o It has prompted at least one union health plan to put off discussions about initiating same-sex health coverage until after the terms of the plan are announced.

o It has even led to producers and union members making the trek to Capitol Hill to discuss how a national plan could affect the industry’s unique programs.

“Certainly we’re concerned about all of the talk circulating around about a national plan,” noted Rocco N. Calabrese, administrator of the Writers Guild-Industry Health Fund.

“We feel that in respect to the level of benefits and the quality of care we offer our members, that it’s unsurpassed in the world of private health care. Obviously, our trustees are fearful that any move toward a national health care plan would tend to water down or require this plan to bear a larger share of health care costs,” he said.

Others in the industry are more optimistic that the advent of Clinton’s plan could ease the already substantial financial burdens being faced.

“I believe the administration’s program is encouraging because of the comprehensive scope of their plan,” said Bill Hillman, chairman of the Health & Retirement Fund for the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

“What was laid out for us was a plan that offers what our plans now offer and , at the same time, adds long-term nursing care. It proposes wrapping workers compensation and auto medical liability into the same package.”

People within the entertainment industry will get a chance to review the Clinton plan in full on June 11, when the Hollywood Policy Center sponsors a 7 p.m. discussion with White House officials. Among those present will be Donna Shalala, the new secretary of Health and Human Services. (The meeting will be held at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills.)

Hillman was one of a select group of people who, a month ago, sat down with Ira Magaziner, the White House-based coordinator of Clinton’s health care task force operation.

Among the others present were Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, and John Sucke, executive director of the New York branch of the Screen Actors Guild.

Could bring savings

After that meeting, Hillman said that the promise of a “well thought-out” national health care plan — projected to cost between $ 50 billion and $ 100 billion — could actually provide substantial savings for all industries in the years to come.

“This year we’ll be spending almost $ 1 trillion in health care costs in this country,” Hillman said. “And costs continue to rise by 15% a year.”

The plan that Magaziner laid out apparently will be implemented by a series of regional public citizen membership commissions that would be set up around the country. These health insurance purchasing cooperatives (HIPCs) would negotiate with groups of health care providers for medical care and would negotiate costs.

Exactly how the entertainment industry’s plans would fit into a national plan remains to be seen and, not surprisingly, is causing some worries.

“We have paid for our own medical plans, trading off wage increases for employer contributions,” Hillman said. “We certainly don’t want to get into situations of having to pay for them twice.”

Is bigger better?

The news at that meeting with Magaziner, however, was that the task force was reviewing the possibility of allowing larger companies — those with 1,000 employees or more — to bypass the commissions if “they felt they could get a better deal,” Hillman said.

“The benefits, though, would be federally mandated,” he said. “You would have to offer the standard package. You could offer more, but not less.”

Counter said that if Clinton’s plan was going to grant large employers the ability to bypass the HIPCs, the possible outcome could be that cost overruns for the larger companies would be shifted back to the HIPCs or to the multi-employer plans. “Then we’re back to where we started,” he said.

For multi-employer funds like the ones used by SAG, AFTRA and other industry groups, there is even the possibility that they could, in the future, form coalitions to gain a more powerful negotiating position with these health care providers.

“What could complicate things is if they were to throw in the idea of employers being taxed on the difference in a plan’s cost, if the costs were to go over a prescribed level,” said Bruce Dow, administrative director of the SAG/Producers Pension & Health Plan.

Costs out of control

Whatever the final plan turns out to be, it comes at a time when many Hollywood health care plans have had to increasingly institute cost-cutting measures.

While AFTRA’s plan is currently operating with a $ 32 million reserve (amounting to a six-month reserve if the union’s income were to stop), and the Writers Guild plan operates with a 24- to 26-month reserve, all of the industry’s unions have had to institute stricter eligibility rules to keep their plans financially viable.

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