Groups unite on healthcare

Unusual alliances of interest groups are coalescing to bring a unified front before Congress to spur federal action on healthcare costs and the uninsured.

Unusual alliances of interest groups are coalescing to bring a unified front before Congress to spur federal action on healthcare costs and the uninsured.

A series of separately planned announcements this week illustrates an emerging consensus among sectors, such as big business and organized labor, that long have been at loggerheads when it comes to health benefits that they must exert combined pressure on policymakers.

This recognition of common interests is rooted in the fact that employers, workers, retirees, health-insurance companies, healthcare providers and the government all are burdened by healthcare costs that rise faster than inflation and by the expense of providing medical care to people without coverage, representatives of the groups agreed.

In addition, the enactment of a universal healthcare program in Massachusetts, the Democratic takeover of Congress and the march toward the presidential campaign season have emboldened advocates of healthcare reform to jumpstart the debate, said Diane Rowland, executive director of the nonpartisan Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured.

Today, the Business Roundtable, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the AARP will launch a campaign they are calling Divided We Fail. The groups intend to put a spotlight on healthcare costs and coverage through this initiative.

“There is pain at all levels at this point,” an AARP spokesman, Mark Kitchens, said. “That’s one of the things that’s different now.”

“There is enthusiasm that maybe now we can really roll up our sleeves and get things done,” the roundtable’s director of public policy, Maria Ghazal, said.

“There is clearly momentum building for fundamental changes to the healthcare system,” SEIU spokeswoman Sara Howard wrote in an e-mail. “For the first time, business, labor and consumers are standing together to address this problem.”

Since the Clinton administration’s effort to enact universal healthcare failed in the early 1990s, Congress has shied away from promoting broad federal actions to address the issues of costs and coverage. The Clinton and Bush administrations, the Republican-led Congress and the two parties’ leading presidential candidates instead focused on narrower initiatives.

In the meantime, the private sector has continued to struggle with maintaining adequate health benefits in the face of escalating expenses.

“Business, labor and consumers are all feeling the same stress,” Ghazal said. She also noted that surveys of her organization’s CEO members have shown healthcare spending to be the No. 1 cost pressure facing large employers.

The three organizations hope to compel Congress and the 2008 presidential candidates to engage in a full debate about the future of the healthcare system. “This is really going to be an enduring effort for us,” Kitchens said, one that will extend from this year through the presidential campaign and beyond.

The alliance plans coordinated activities such as town-hall meetings on healthcare issues in key presidential primary states and joint appearances and op-eds by representatives of the three groups, Kitchens said.

“We intend to hold our political leaders accountable for this,” Kitchens said.

“Everyone is positioning themselves to try and promote this as an issue that will be a big player in the presidential elections,” Rowland said.

A central theme of the Roundtable-SEIU-AARP initiative will be that all players, from employers to workers to the government, have a stake in the success of healthcare reform and that all of these players must do their part, Kitchens said. “We really are going to be stressing solutions and efforts from many different sectors,” he said.

Ghazal emphasized that the alliance will not promote a government-managed universal healthcare program. “The foundation of our nation’s healthcare system should still definitely lie in the private marketplace,” she said.

The business community’s belief that the government has to step up is not tantamount to an endorsement of government-run healthcare, Ghazal emphasized. “There’s more of a recognition that the government is already paying for more than 50 percent of healthcare,” she said.

The Roundtable-SEIU-AARP alliance does not plan to propose a specific set of policy recommendations, Kitchens said. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye and we know that,” he said.

Significant challenges await any legislative push on healthcare reform that efforts such as these would have to overcome. Strong philosophical disagreements persist between Democrats and Republicans about the appropriate role of government in providing healthcare coverage and resentment lingers from the heated fight over the Clinton plan.

In addition, the 2008 presidential candidates, especially those currently serving in the Senate, will want to highlight their own ideas, which could dampen their interest in making compromises.

Nevertheless, some lawmakers already have taken steps to move healthcare reform forward this year. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) held a hearing last week on healthcare coverage and costs that featured some of the same groups launching initiatives this week.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) will take to the Senate floor for an hour this morning “in search of [the] missing federal debate on healthcare reform,” according to a media advisory, and to promote his own universal-coverage legislation.

Tomorrow, Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), John Tierney (D-Mass.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.) will introduce their healthcare reform legislation.

On Thursday, a group of healthcare-industry organizations, business interests and consumer groups will launch their Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured.

The liberal advocacy group Families USA will stand with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AARP and associations representing health insurers, doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers at this event.

The aim of the coalition is “to build a consensus that can be presented to Congress and provide … a set of principles that can inform the national debate on healthcare coverage,” a spokesman for AHIP, Mohit Ghose, said. AHIP offered its own plan for expanding healthcare coverage shortly after the November elections.

“It does show a coming-together of varied interests to push for a common goal, which is to increase access to health insurance coverage for millions of people,” Ghose said.