Anxious CEOs criticize inclusion of any public option in healthcare reform bill

Any kind of government-run health insurance program would lead to higher costs for employers, corporate executives representing a big-business group said Wednesday.

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The Business Roundtable, an alliance of corporate CEOs, criticized the public option in a conference call with reporters as congressional Democratic leaders intensified their push to include a government plan in their healthcare reform bills.

“We’re here to voice our strong opposition,” said John Castellani, the president of the Roundtable.

“This week, the Senate healthcare reform effort took a wrong turn,” said Antonio Perez, the chairman and CEO of Eastman Kodak Co. who chairs the Business Roundtable’s Consumer Health and Retirement Initiative.

Although the health insurance industry’s opposition to the public option has received the most attention, business and healthcare groups are practically unanimous in their opposition and have been since the beginning of the debate.

Now that Congress is inching closer to final action, business groups are stepping up their messaging campaigns. The business community has become increasingly anxious as the prospects for the public option have improved on Capitol Hill.

The Business Roundtable’s chief argument against the public option is that a government plan would offer lower payments to medical providers who, in turn, would raise the rates they charge for patients enrolled in employer-sponsored health insurance plans.

“It won’t contain costs. It will just shift them to the private payers,” Castellani said. “The state opt-out provision does nothing to blunt that impact.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) shifted the healthcare reform debate leftward on Monday when he announced that the bill heading to the Senate floor would include a public option. Reid settled on a compromise version that would allow states to opt out, winning over a handful of centrist Democrats but losing Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) along the way.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is also reportedly close to rounding up the votes she needs to include a nationwide public option in the lower chamber’s bill. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, the public option would lower the cost of healthcare reform and attract as many as 10 million enrollees.

Reid’s proposed compromise did not satisfy business and insurance groups. Perez said it would take a “miracle” for Congress to devise a form of public option that corporate America could support.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a bill this month that did not include a public option but Reid decided to favor a separate measure passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on the issue.

While the Finance Committee legislation was “not perfect,” Perez said, it “provided a bold framework that we liked for healthcare reform.”

Unlike the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is rolling out television ads to fight the public option, the Business Roundtable plans no so campaign. “We will rely primarily on the face-to-face visits [and] the phone calls” between corporate CEOs and lawmakers, Castellani said.

Verizon Communications Chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg, who chairs the Business Roundtable, said the group’s members would keep pushing their agenda. “We don’t believe the process is over — far from it,” he said. “We’re going to start with this call and we’ll go from here.”