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WASHINGTON-Even though the current Congress is unlikely to initiate any sweeping health care reforms, members will continue to be interested in the quality of care provided by employer health plans, a senator says.

Improved access to emergency medical care and expanding the number of children with health insurance-a key issue for the working poor-are among the areas Congress probably will deal with, said Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I.

Sen. Chafee made his observation during the keynote address to the National Managed Health Care Congress in Washington this month.

Sen. Chafee shared the podium with Dr. Patrick Mattingly, senior vp of Harvard Pilgrim Health Plan; Dr. Timothy Ray, president and chief executive officer of Consortium Health Plans in Stamford, Conn.; and Sean Sullivan, president and CEO of the National Business Coalition on Health. Dolores Mitchell, executive director of the Group Health Insurance Commission of Massachusetts in Boston, moderated the session.

Although the theme of the keynote was "Health Care in the 21st Century: Who's Going to be in the Driver's Seat," Sen. Chafee concentrated on what the current Congress was likely to do, and he made clear that it would be incremental reform at best.

The "big-ticket item" for the current Congress is likely to be Medicare reform because the federal program threatens to "swallow up the resources" needed to fund all discretionary spending if there are no changes. He called for an end to "harsh rhetoric" and implementation of some sort of means testing for wealthier Medicare beneficiaries.

Sen. Chafee also said that he's "troubled" by one aspect of Congress' moves toward incremental reform. He said that if Congress is going to get into the business of setting managed care standards, it should not do so on a "disease-by-disease" basis. Instead, he recommended that another entity, perhaps a new entity along the lines of the Financial Accounting Standards Board, should deal with the issue.

NMHCC estimates 10,000 people attended the annual conference. Next year's conference will be held April 20-23, 1998, in Atlanta. In addition, the organization plans to hold a fall conference in Los Angeles Nov. 3-6 of this year.

For more information on the two upcoming conferences, contact the NMHCC after May 5 at its new address: 71 Second St., Third Floor, Waltham, Mass. 02154; (617) 663-6000 or toll-free (888) 446-6422.