Big US companies have formed a coalition to lobby Congress to push for a market-led, universal healthcare system not unlike the one Governor Schwarzenegger proposes to adopt in California.

The Los Angeles Times yesterday reported that the business lobby’s traditional stance of resisting healthcare reform was being abandoned as 36 major companies, led by the CEO of Safeway, Steve Burd, launched the Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform (CAHR) calling for universal health care.

The Coalition essentially wants healthcare reform to follow certain core “principles”:

  • Mandatory universal health care,
  • Subsidies for low income citizens,
  • Coverage for pre-existing medical conditions (many insurers won’t cover these),
  • Programmes that offer incentives for preventive care and healthier lifestyle changes,
  • Tax relief for citizens who buy their own insurance, and
  • Transparency in fees and costs of treatment.

The 36 Coalition members include 18 Fortune 500 companies and between them employ over 1.7 million workers. They include some well known manufacturing, retail and service companies such as Pacific Gas and Electric, General Mills, PepsiCo, several Safeway companies and grocery firms like Bumble Bee Foods.

Some drug manufacturers and insurance companies are also in the Coalition, such as Aetna, Cigna, Eli Lilly and Blue Shield of California.

The Coalition is hoping to attract more members and wants employers to realize they need to be proactive in tackling the country’s growing crisis in healthcare provision and costs.

Addressing the business community yesterday, Burd said that the cost of healthcare in the US will be 22 per cent of gross domestic product by the year 2015.

The launch of the Coalition was welcomed by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, UFCW, whose president, Joseph T Hanson said in a press release that:

“The UFCW has long been a supporter of universal, affordable and quality health care coverage for all Americans. And we believe that a broad-based effort of all Americans is fundamental to achieving that goal. Responsible members of the business community have a large role to play in this effort, and we applaud CAHR for bringing them into the national healthcare dialogue. “

Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposals to have everyone in California covered by health insurance were disclosed in January. It is said that he was influenced by Burd’s ideas and liked the system where Safeway employees are encouraged to take responsibility for their health, seek preventive care, address bad lifestyle habits and save money to cover possible future healthcare costs.

The Coalition did not say how the new system should be funded.

The news was not welcomed by California’s small business community, whose spokesperson, Scott Hauge, is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that it drives a “wedge” between large and small business. Small business leaders are trying to get the government to bring down the rising costs of healthcare.

An earlier article in the New York Times at the weekend reported how small businesses, which employ around 40 per cent of America’s workforce, appear to suffer unreasonably at the hands of insurance companies in some states because they are allowed to put up premiums substantially if one worker in a small company incurs significant health care costs.

The article quotes Kansas’ Governor Kathleen Sebelius who, as a member of a group looking into health care problems, said Kansas and most other states face a big challenge in the area of affordable healthcare coverage for small employers and the self-employed:

“Almost any kind of situation where one employee has a serious health condition almost makes the group uninsurable, because of cost,” she said.

Meanwhile, the view from the health profession appears to echo the growing frustration with the current system.

Also writing in the New York Times, Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who is also a staff writer with the New Yorker said in an opinion piece that it is going to be a long time before the large majority of insured US citizens is “persuaded to risk changing what they have”. The last time healthcare was reformed was in 1965, said Gawande, when Medicare was created after the system collapsed.

The current system has not collapsed, and until it does, Gawande does not believe people are much motivated to act, saying the healthcare system was like a tumour growing in his patients, left to fester until it is too late. He said the system can be fixed, but only if “we make changes that alter most people’s coverage gradually, while still providing a path out of this mess”. Gawande will be proposing his own strategy in his next column, he said.

In January this year, Democrat Senator for Oregon, Ron Wyden, introduced a bill called the Healthy Americans Act, that would separate health insurance from employment and guarantee universal coverage.

Another bill was introduced recently in the House by Representatives Brian Baird (Democrat, Washington) and Jo Ann Emerson (Repulican, Missouri) whereby private insurers would provide health cover to individuals directly, outside of their employment contracts. And eventually, instead of paying premiums to health insurers, employers would pay the equivalent to employees directly and also pay contributions to the government.

There are currently 47 million Americans without health insurance.

Click here for Lost Angeles Times story Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform.

Click here for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union reaction to the Coalition.

Written by: Catharine Paddock
Writer: Medical News Today