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On The Iron Range, A Stony Reaction


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ON THE IRON RANGE, A STONY REACTION

The hardy citizens of Hibbing, Minn., who survive by fighting bitter-cold winters while scratching a living out of open-pit mines on Minnesota's iron range, are tough critics. Even the town's most famous son, folksinger Bob Dylan, didn't get much respect in Hibbing. Way back before he became the voice of his generation, classmates at Hibbing High booed Dylan off the variety-show stage because they disliked his off-key imitation of Frankie Valli.

If President Clinton is ever going to sell his health-reform package, however, it's going to have to play in places like Hibbing. Like a hundred other Main Street burgs, Hibbing, population 18,046, is a town full of skeptics with down-to-earth sensibilities and a strong working-class ethic. And if the reaction in Hibbing is any indication, the President has one tough sales job ahead of him.

FRETFUL. In theory, Hibbing should be fertile ground for Clinton's proposal for government-backed universal health coverage. After all, Howard Street, with its hardware stores and union halls, diners and taverns, has seen the leanest of times during the mining industry's periodic shutdowns. But most locals are covered by their employers' private health plans--and most of them say the system works pretty well. They worry that the government's planned reforms could snarl things up. And they're scornful of claims that the government can cut costs while providing high-quality, universal health services.

Take Bob Holmbeck. He knows the health-care system needs fixing: His 28-year-old son doesn't carry any health coverage because the insurance is too expensive. That doesn't mean Clinton can count on the support of Holmbeck, an electrician who's currently striking the National Steel Corp. mine. Indeed, Holmbeck dismisses Clinton's plan as "a fraud." As he works his way through a stack of flapjacks at Mary's Cafe, he predicts that the government won't be successful in capping doctor's fees, and that universal coverage for all citizens will prove too costly. "There's a societal need," Holmbeck allows. "They've got the right idea, but they've got to take a different approach to it."

As in the rest of the nation, it is Hibbing's small businesses that are most fretful about Clinton's plans for a health-care overhaul. "I'm afraid it's going to cost me a ton of money more than it does now," says Leo G. Fraboni, who employs 16 people in his sausage-making company. "The plan's going to be about 10,000 pages long, so what are you going to hear about? Only what they want to tell you." And at electronic-parts maker Hibbing Electronics Corp., Chief Executive Bonnie Fena frets that the government will micromanage how she covers her 420 employees, even to the point of limiting which managed-care providers she can choose. "That's like telling me which kind of car I can drive, what kind of clothes I buy, and when I can buy a house," she says.

Hibbingites understand the need for reform: They're grappling themselves with how to hold down health-care costs. Miners at Hibbing Taconite Co. ended a five-week strike on Sept. 7 only after the company agreed to stop trying to impose a managed-care health plan on employees. In the Hibbing Public Library, 18 community leaders work on the town's application for a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help finance an elderly-care facility. And City Administrator John Fedo, exasperated that health-insurance costs were consuming 15% of his budget, just switched plans for the 245 people covered by the city.

CONFRONTATION. Talk of health reform really hits home for Dr. Jack Greene. The family practitioner is worried about becoming the health-care "gatekeeper" at the local Mesaba Medical Clinic. "I'll have to say, `No, you can't have that test, you can't do that procedure, you don't meet this criteria,"' Greene frets. "There's going to be a confrontational feeling between me and my patients."

Hibbing also has its share of the people with the most at stake in health-care reform: those who can't afford health insurance. At the Hibbing Library, young mother Sandra Wehrenberg minds two of her children while her eldest son spends his first day in first grade at the local grammar school. The Wehrenberg family does without health insurance because Sandra's husband, who operates his own cleaning business, makes too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to buy coverage. "We don't take them in to the doctor as often as we should," Wehrenberg says with a nod toward her one-year-old playing nearby.

Most people in Hibbing probably would agree that people like the Wehrenbergs shouldn't be left to fend for themselves. Hibbingites just aren't sure that Clinton's health-care approach is the way to go. If the President can't convince them, his reforms could end up suffering hometowner Bob Dylan's fate: getting booed right off the stage.David Greising in Hibbing, Minn.


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