The D.C. Council cleared the way yesterday for emergency legislation to subsidize medical insurance for the 90 employees of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a major AIDS service organization that says it is about to be wiped out by the escalating cost of health insurance.
Council members, acting as the Committee of the Whole, voted unanimously to waive council procedures and place the bill on the consent agenda for next week's legislative session, meaning that it is likely to easily win approval.
The legislation would require the financially troubled city to provide clinic employees a subsidy of at least $200,000 a year, city officials said.
The action came only a week after the bill was introduced by council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), and five days after it was marked up by Kane's Government Operations Committee -- constituting what council insiders described as an unsual "fast track" for the legislation.
It also came less than a week before the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city's major gay political organization, is scheduled to decide whom to endorse for D.C. delegate to Congress.
Stein officials say Kane and civil rights activist Eleanor Holmes Norton are locked in a dead heat for the group's endorsement. Some gay activists say Kane's push for quick council action on the measure could help her quest for the Stein endorsement.
Norton said yesterday that Kane's action on the bill, which has been co-sponsored by the other 12 council members, constitutes using incumbency for political purposes.
While Norton said she supports the idea of providing emergency assistance to Whitman-Walker, she questioned the way the council was doing it and said the plan ignores other groups with health insurance problems. Norton said Whitman-Walker "is being treated specially when others are not getting insurance at all."
Mayor Marion Barry's administration officials and some council members, including William Lightfoot (I-At Large), Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) and Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), also expressed concern about the speed with which the council was considering the legislation. Some questioned the potential cost.
"We are very cash-short this fiscal year," said Garland Pinkston, the administration's top lobbyist with the council. "We are concerned about any extra money we will have to pay."
While the emergency bill would go into effect as soon as it is signed by Barry, Kane promised to hold hearings on the matter in September before the council passes permanent legislation authorizing the subsidy.
Four other nonprofit clinics would also receive assistance from the city worth up to $40,000 to $50,000 a year. Under the legislation, the clinics would be required to carry health insurance policies identical to one of the District's plans. The clinics would pick up the cost that equals the total rate the District must pay for its own employees, with the District picking up the rest.
Kane said quick action on the bill is necessary to avert a health care catastrophe for the city. Since January 1989, Whitman-Walker's health insurance premiums have more than quadrupled, from $142 a month per employee to $600 this month, in part because of the cost of treating some of the clinic's employees for AIDS.
Administrators of the clinic, the major provider of testing, counseling and other services for District AIDS patients, have warned that escalating insurance costs could force Whitman-Walker to go out of business.
Kane, responding to Norton's criticism, said she has been working with clinic officials for six months to solve the problem. "I will always use the power of incumbency to solve the problems of people," she said, adding that the cost of subsidizing health insurance is cheaper than providing the service should Whitman-Walker close.