Joseph A. Califano, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, complained yesterday that Congress is acting too slowly on President Carter's "critical" proposal to curb hospital costs.
"I would have hoped Congress would have acted faster. There is so much money at stake being wasted - it is an expense that has to be stopped," Califano said. He called the hospitals "gluttonous" and "obese," terms he has used before. The average cost per stay has gone up $100 - from $1,300 to $1,400 - in the time since the administration made the proposal, said Califano.
Carter's proposal, sent to Congress this spring, would limit cost increases for most U.S. hospitals to nine per cent in fiscal 1978 and penalize them if they did not stay within that limit.
There have been major disagreements among health leaders in the House and Senate over the proposal and how to control soaring hospital costs. For example, Sen. Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.), whose Senate Finance subcommittee has jurisdiction over Carter's plan, has expressed reservations about the proposal, which Carter estimated would save $2 billion in fiscal year 1978.
In a wide-ranging session with reporters, Califano touched on many other issues - welfare reform, abortion, Carter's plan to bolster the deficit-ridden Social Security system, national health insurance and "the single most important thing we could do in preventive health care - get people to stop smoking cigarettes."
Califano, a former heavy smoker, said HEW plans to step up its antismoking educational program. "Some 300,000 die every year prematurely because of cigarettes," he said.
Any national health insurance plan proposed by this administration would not cover abortions, Califano also said.
Some 1.1 million abortions are performed annually. An estimated 300,000 of them were paid for by Medicaid until recently when the Supreme Court ruled that the government may refuse to pay for them, Califano has long supported cutting Medicaid funds for abortions.
Many other abortions are now paid for by major private insurance companies. At this time, there is no way of predicting whether a national health insurance plan would replace private companies or simply supplement their policies. When asked whether government employees now covered by insurance plans paid for in part by federal funds should continue to be covered for abortions, Califano reserved comment. "I'd like to think about. I've just never thought about it," he said.
Despite recent Hill criticism of Carter's welfare overhaul proposal, Califano remained confident that "there will be a major overhaul of the welfare system out of this congress."
Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), chairman of the Finance Committee, said this week that it would be "foolhardy" to approve the proposed welfare revisions except on a trial basis.
Califano countered that existing pilot projects helped shape the proposal and that state officials were consulted heavily. The program also would not be implemented before 1981 so it could be put in place effectively, he said.
Despite criticism from unions about the 1.4 million public jobs in the welfare package to be created at minimum wage, Califnao said they would not be upped to prevailing wage.