"Does the government understand the desperation of the small businessman?" Gagliardi asked passionately. "Health care will be a constant. How can small businesses afford . . . the cost?"
Reich's response, meant to be reassuring, touched directly upon the central theme of the administration's plan - private, universal health care - which he was boosting before an audience of 150 people.
"The reason is you don't have bargaining power," Reich said. "If you got together, you could get those costs down."
The Clinton plan, he explained, would encourage greater competition between providers and allow businesses to band together to attract cheaper, group rates.
"You get economy of scale," Reich said during his opening remarks. "You
put some pressure on insurance companies to get some cost control. You give people more choice . . . and businesses more empowerment."
He said the plan would not add more than 15 cents per hour to the salaries of low-paid workers and no more than 34 cents per hour to highly paid workers. Health coverage for part-time workers would be linked to the number of hours worked, he added.
Appearing with Reich was U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., Camden- Burlington-Gloucester), whose office invited the broad cross-section of interests among those in attendance.
There were doctors who said patients would lose coverage and the ability to choose their physicians. Other small businessmen expressed the fears Gagliardi voiced.
But the crowd also included universal coverage's traditional supporters: nonprofit groups for the disabled and disadvantaged. And they, too, as employers, were worried about the potential cost.
The Clinton plan attempts to satisfy them all by guaranteeing less costly, universal health-care coverage. Reich, citing a study by the Congressional Budget Office, predicted cost savings of $200 billion by the year 2004.
But, no matter the plan's final form, both Reich and Andrews predicted that Congress would pass a universal health-care plan by the end of this year's session, which is scheduled to end in September or October.
Andrews, who urged Democrats and Republicans alike to put aside politics in the name of the public good, said a final plan will cover Americans even when they change jobs.
But he predicted changes in the President's proposal.
"I think the administration is going to stick to its goals and modify its means," he said.
Reich said the plan would lower health-care costs by reducing the amount of paperwork. The emphasis on primary and preventive care, meanwhile, would create a new mass job market, he said.
But he could not guarantee that all Americans would be able to work and receive benefits. Fred Doerr of Woodlynne, a quadriplegic since 1976, told the labor secretary that he does not work these days because his income would put him over the threshold for receiving Medicare benefits. He said his home-care costs approach $5,000 per month.
Reich could not guarantee Doerr that he would be able to work and maintain his benefits under the proposed plan. Still, he found a supporter in Doerr.
"They're on the right track, I think," Doerr said later. "I just hope my situation is covered."
Nonetheless, the discussion received mixed reviews.
"I never really paid any attention to it before," said Adrienne Duckworth, 16, a Highland High School junior who added that she supports health care for everybody.
But Dr. Louis Keeler, first vice president of the Medical Society of New Jersey, left with as much skepticism as he had conveyed before Reich and Andrews spoke.
"I dispute the fact that they'll be able to save money," Keeler, a urological surgeon in Camden County, said. "The government has never saved money doing anything."