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Odd Bedfellows Join Hands in Health Care Debate

February 7, 2007
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Four major companies joined the Service Employees International Union and diverse policy groups on Wednesday, February 7, to advocate overhauling the U.S. health care system by 2012—but the corporate participants stopped short of endorsing a government takeover.

Wal-Mart, AT&T, Intel and Kelly Services are participating in the “Better Health Care Together” campaign, which is composed of a number of organizations from across the political spectrum and designed to elevate and frame the health care debate. It is one of several recently launched diverse groups with that mission.

The campaign will put pressure on politicians to address high health costs, lack of coverage for 47 million Americans and uneven quality in the system.

Each member of the group signed a statement of four principles that says, among other things, “Every person in America must have quality, affordable health insurance coverage” and “businesses, governments and individuals all should contribute to managing and financing a new American health care system.”

At a Washington press conference, corporate leaders asserted that the employer-based health insurance model in the United States is broken. Health costs hamper U.S. firms as they try to compete in the global economy against foreign companies that aren’t weighed down by similarly high health expenses.

“It’s time to admit that the 60-year experiment of employer-based health coverage is over,” said Carl Camden, president and CEO of Kelly Services.

But neither Camden nor any of the other executives at the event backed a government-run system that would get corporations out of the health care business. Each declared that the patient—the U.S. health care system—is sick, but shied away from offering prescriptions.

“We have lots of policy options,” Camden said. “The question is, do we have the political will to act on those options.”

The companies say that building political will, rather than advocating particular policy approaches, is their goal at this point.

“Joining the coalition is part of moving the dialogue forward,” Wal-Mart president and CEO Lee Scott says. “At Wal-Mart, we’re committed to health care and believe it has to be high quality, affordable and accessible. The current health care system doesn’t work for many Americans.”

AT&T suggested that it did not want to abandon coverage for its workers and retirees. The company provides health care for 1.2 million people at a cost of $5 billion annually.

“We’re convinced that this is the right thing to do for our employees and shareholders and we’re committed to this path,” said James Cicconi, AT&T senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs.

But Cicconi argued that something must be done to cover the 47 million Americans who lack insurance. If companies can provide coverage for their employees, “we as a country should do no less for those lacking coverage.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr., R-Tennessee, the founder of an eponymous public policy center at the University of Tennessee, maintains that the political climate favors addressing major overhaul, including issues surrounding the uninsured.

“This is the time for health care reform,” he said. “It will be a hot debate. America will be sharply divided on some issues.” Baker is a sponsor of the coalition.

Business needs to step into that fray, says John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress and another coalition sponsor.

“Corporate America is central to breaking the logjam on health care reform,” he says.

The collection of odd political bedfellows will help achieve that goal, SEIU president Andrew Stern notes.

“We need fundamental change,” he says.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

 

 

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