What’s the cure to our health care system?

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Friday, September 01, 2006

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Each year, more and more businesses drop their employee health care coverage because they can’t afford health plans. Each year, more and more Americans — almost 50 million now — become uninsured because they can’t afford health plans. 

From 2000-2005, the percentage of businesses offering health care dropped from 69% to 60%, driven largely by a significant decline in participation from small business. In an economy dominated by small businesses such as Oregon’s, this contributes to the 600,000 uninsured people in the state.

But it’s easy to glaze over statistics. Listen instead to Umpqua Dairy COO Steve Feldkamp:

“Health care costs have the ability to do in the company.”

This is a 75-year-old family-owned business that employs 200 people — one of the top employers in Roseburg. In the past five years, health care costs for Umpqua Dairy have doubled; it now costs the company $750 per employee for a family policy, with health care accounting for almost 16% of the dairy’s expenses.

Feldkamp says that wages are being held back by escalating costs. “Our health care package has grown, but the take-home pay hasn’t increased that much. You can’t afford to do it all.”

He says one of the thorniest topics this year with his union was the portion of health care costs employees would shoulder. Until now, the company paid the entire cost for workers and their families because it wanted to do the right thing and remain competitive. But, “In this day and age, because costs have gotten so large, at some point you have to pass a portion of it on,” Feldkamp says.

What’s the cure? “I’ve never been in favor of the government coming in and fixing things,” he says. “I’ve always thought that a free market economy is the best direction for this country and ourselves. However…this burden has become so big that I’m not sure how we go about fixing it on our own.”

Maybe one cure is to end employer-based health insurance, which could give both cost-crushed businesses and the millions of Americans with no health coverage a chance to thrive.

Labor leader Andy Stern, head of the 1.8 million member Service Employees International Union, created a stir when he said in the Wall Street Journal recently: “The employer-based system of health coverage is over. This may sound shocking, coming from a union leader...but the system is collapsing.”

The Heritage Foundation proposes offering everyone the same tax break for health insurance that companies get, doing away with the employer-based model and giving financial assistance directly to individuals to buy health insurance. The National Small Business Association, a lobbying group, has proposed similar ideas.

Whatever the fix, one thing is clear. Business needs to lead the effort to get itself out from under the unpredictable and spiking health care costs, and toward a system that allows all of us to afford a basic level of health coverage — no matter where we work, or if we lose our jobs. The political world has proven itself incapable of doing it.

In this issue, we explore one of those efforts — former governor John Kitzhaber’s Archimedes Movement — and the challenges it faces. There are other dedicated, concerned people in Oregon also looking for a solution.

We need to find one fast. Our businesses —  and our lives —  are at stake.

— Robin Doussard
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