The Pepper Commission, a 15-member body consisting of 12 congressmen and three presidential appointees, has released an ambitious plan for universal health care for the nation's citizens.

Unfortunately, the $69.6 billion per year price tag is too much for the revenue-starved federal budget to digest at the present time.The commission, named for the late Rep. Claude Pepper, D-Fla., a feisty and outspoken advocate for the elderly, has spent two years searching for the solution to two major problems facing America: the 32 million citizens under age 65 who have no health care insurance coverage, and protection for the majority of Americans who have no insurance to protect themselves from the huge costs of long-term health care.

Among the recommendations:

- Requiring all large employers to provide health care insurance for their workers within five years.

- A new multibillion dollar federal program to provide health care insurance for the uninsured poor and the unemployed.

- A federal insurance program to cover all Americans, regardless of income, who need home and community-based care (including the first three months of nursing home care).

- Phasing in long-term care over four years.

- Small companies be encouraged through tax credits or federal subsidies to provide employee coverage. This includes the threat of mandatory compliance if the incentives fail to work.

The commission failed to provide specific funding recommendations for the proposal, saying only that it "recognizes that new revenues will be necessary" to support the broad objectives. A little calculation shows that those "new revenues" translate into an additional $430 annual tax burden for every non-poor American adult.

The need to deal with sky-rocketing health care costs and the vulnerability of those Americans who have no insurance coverage to help ease the cost burden must be addressed. A way must be found to ensure that all Americans have unlimited access to basic health care services.

The Pepper commission proposal is not the answer. Especially now.

Faced with a trillion dollar national debt, a federal budget deficit approaching $200 billion, a faltering economy and the threat of war in the Middle East, Congress has no alternative but to reject the commission's recommendations.

Congress needs to focus on some responsible budget resuscitation over the next few days to keep America breathing. Then, Congress must concentrate on providing long-term health care for the beleaguered budget.

Putting America on the road to economic recovery should be today's health care priority.