When business and politics mix

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Friday, June 01, 2007

s_Robin

Two news announcements hit my desk as we were finishing up this issue’s special report assessing the future of health care.  

It’s been hard to feel optimistic about that future. You only have to look at the continued spiraling cost of health insurance to think progress is remote. Last fall when we delved into health-care reform in September’s cover story on John Kitzhaber’s Archimedes Movement, I railed here about politicians lacking the will to solve the crisis of cost and 47 million uninsured Americans, and challenged  business leaders to get us out of the mess. Has much changed since then?

Our special report this month, finds  hope in some corners. There’s cancer wunderkind Dr. Brian Druker wanting nothing less than to find the cure for cancer; community colleges valiantly working to fill the gap for skilled health-care workers; and while it doesn’t enjoy complete support, Senate Bill 329 has at least brought discussion of health-care reform to Salem.

Back to those two news announcements and that question of how much has changed.

The news came from the office of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, announcing that Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) along with U.S. Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) were joining forces on Wyden’s Healthy Americans Act, which guarantees universal, private health insurance for everyone.

Then just days later, Wyden, a Democrat, announced that this bipartisan coalition was being joined by the CEOs of several of the nation’s biggest companies, including Safeway, Medtronic, Cigna, General Mills and Aetna, which had formed a new Coalition to Advance Health-Care Reform. It was a rare show of solidarity among liberals and conservatives, government and business.

I called Wyden a few days later, catching him as he took a break from the Senate floor. He was enthusiastic and hopeful about the chance for health-care reform. Why now, when even just last fall it seemed like reformers were tilting at windmills?

“In 1994, CEOs said we can’t afford to fix health care,” Wyden said. “Now they are saying we can’t afford not to fix health care.”

Wyden’s proposal would guarantee private health coverage and benefits equal to those of members of Congress. It would get business out of the business of providing health-care insurance by having employers “cash out” their workers, and those workers then buying their own private insurance. Subsidies would be available to those at lower income levels.

Wyden said he’s talked often to the various health-care reformers here in Oregon and has high-profile CEOs such as Robert Beal of Oregon Iron Works and Mark Ganz of The Regence Group in his camp. He gave credit to the local efforts, such as Senate Bill 329, but said the states cannot fix this on their own.  

“States can set a template, set value judgments, but it needs to be in line with federal policy. I think to the extent a state can determine how much money people are spending in state dollars and how you can involve people in making judgments about benefits, it’s time well spent.

“But the states cannot fix problems they didn’t cause.”

His biggest concern now is keeping the momentum going for reform.

“We’re going to race against the clock,” said Wyden, “because 2008 will consumed by the presidential race.” Wyden and the bill’s supporters plan to pull out all the stops to get something done this year, or any reform will wait until 2009. His bill currently is pending in the Senate Finance Committee.

This summer, unlike last fall, there are politicians and business leaders — at the state and local level, from both sides of the political aisle — who have stepped up. Let’s hope we don’t wait two more years for real progress to happen.

— Robin Doussard
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