LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Sketching his vision for a less aggressiveform of health-care reform than that recently served up by theClinton administration, Democratic Congressman Jim Cooperappeared to win support from many biotechnology executiveshere on Sunday night.

Cooper, co-author of a bipartisan alternative to the Clinton planfor managed health-care coverage, attempted to stake out themiddle ground in the growing public debate during a 40-minute informal talk. He also made a brief pitch for financialsupport for his expected campaign next year for the U.S. Senateseat formerly held by Vice President Al Gore.

Cooper said of the five health-care reform plans now beforeCongress, "We're the one in the middle; the one with the bestchance of passage."

His plan, introduced with Republican Congressman Fred Grandyof Iowa, avoids employer mandates such as the Clinton plan'srequirement that employers pay at least 80 percent of theiremployees' medical coverage. Although it would also notachieve universal coverage -- a major objective of the Clintonplan -- compared with two Republican-backed proposals,Cooper's plan sets out a faster path to expanding access to thehealth-care system for uninsured Americans. A fifth plan callsfor more change than Clinton's and comes closest to the single-payer health-care system used in Canada.

"I think he's got a plan that will work," David Hale, presidentand chief executive officer of Gensia Pharmaceuticals Inc. ofSan Diego, said of Cooper's approach. "Of all the plans, I preferthis one."

However, reflecting a view held by several biotechnologyofficials, Hale said he was not committing his support to aspecific plan, only to positions on the issues. Many observersexpect that health-care reform in its final form will combinevarious parts of different proposals.

Among its more appealing aspects for biotechnology executives,the Cooper-Grandy plan leaves the pricing of both insurancepremiums and innovative drugs and procedures to marketforces. "The market will do the better of price controls," Coopersaid. The Clinton plan, formally introduced about five weeksago, proposes an advisory committee on breakthrough drugs tooversee the reasonableness of drug prices.

The possibility of price controls has stirred up a storm ofprotests inside the industry. "I don't want the biotechnologyindustry destroyed by the misguided health-care plan BillClinton has proposed," said Ivor Royston, who hosted themeeting with Cooper at his home.

The Clinton plan is blamed by some biotechnology executivesand analysts for the recent edginess in financial markets aboutbiotechnology investments and soft stock prices for the sector'sstocks. If an advisory council were to weigh in on drug prices,some analysts question if biotechnology products could bepriced high enough to encourage continued investment inresearch.

Cooper sympathized with the suspected impact on capitalmarkets, but suggested that the industry's solution lies inflexing its political muscle.

The Cooper-Grandy plan has attracted 57 co-sponsors inCongress, the largest number among the five plans. However,Cooper said a recent opinion poll showed that about 70 percentof Americans supported, at least in theory, the use of pricecontrols as a means to slow rising health-care costs.

"They've got poll numbers on their side," Cooper said of theClinton plan's backers. He urged biotechnology executives to getinvolved in the debate and help change public opinion bytalking to their employees and contacting their representatives.

The call to arms was not new. It has echoed throughout thebiotechnology industry in recent months, as executives andanalysts have become alarmed over elements of the health-care reform proposal.

Congressional action usually turns on compromise among manyviewpoints, Cooper said. "It's not a rational process," he added,conceding that the sharply higher tobacco taxes of the Clintonplan were omitted from his bill because of the political muscletobacco companies exert among Southern members of Congress.

"Health-care reform is going to happen within the next 12months," Cooper told those gathered Sunday at Royston's home."We just have to make sure it's positive change."

-- Ray Potter Contributing Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.