Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The National Coalition On Benefits' Oppostion to the Wyden-Bennett "Healthy Americans Act"--Maybe They Like It After All?

The National Coalition on Benefits is a group of more than 150 of America's biggest corporations as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.

They wrote a letter to Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Bob Bennett (R-UT), cosponsors of the bipartisan "Healthy Americans Act," telling them that their bill was a non-starter because it dared to mess with ERISA. The Wyden-Bennett bill has 16 bipartisan Senate sponsors and 23 House sponsors.

The Coalition objected to Wyden-Bennett because of its emphasis on the individual health insurance platform over the traditional employer-based system of health insurance:
In summary, we believe that a sensible, consensus approach to health reform should build on our voluntary employer-based health care system and not undermine the essential role of employers in our health care system. Central to this is the current ERISA standard which provides a single, uniform federal framework and makes it possible for employers to offer health benefits to millions of employees, which they highly value and depend on.
Upon reading the letter, I was frankly puzzled that many of America's largest companies, the U.S. Chamber, and the Roundtable would be so against what is also the core principle in the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's health plan. John McCain shares the same basic approach to individual responsibility in health care the Wyden-Bennett bill uses--including the elimination of the employee tax exemption on employer-provided health insurance in favor of individual incentives for coverage.

Apparently, things are not all that happy over at the National Coalition on Benefits because a significant number of its corporate members were more than surprised to find out they were against the Wyden-Bennett Health Plan when the letter came out. I am hearing there has been at least one conference call between leadership and some unhappy companies who found their name on that letter.

That the letter could also be interpreted as a denunciation of the core individual responsibility section of the McCain Health Plan and supportive of the Obama approach, that would build on the existing employer-based system, didn't help things. Xerox also chairs the coalition and the Xerox CEO has been a strong supporter first of Senator Clinton and now Senator Obama.

ERISA may well be the most successful thing we have in our not so successful health care financing system. The vast majority of employers have been incredibly responsible in providing almost 200 million people valued health insurance despite all the challenges they face in doing so.

None of the Coalition members want to see ERISA eroded--just as the mission statement of the National Coalition on Benefits asserts. But I also expect that what most of those Coalition members meant by that is that they do not want to see ERISA changed in the context of the current health care financing system.

ERISA was passed by the Congress and signed into law in 1974 by President Gerald Ford. It is 1974 health care thinking. It is at the center of a system that is not working.

These big companies know that and, while they understandably are not about to give up the protections they have under ERISA in the current system, the notion that they could never support building an entirely new system on a different foundation is hardly the same thing. I can't believe two of its members in particular--Chrysler and GM--would disagree with that statement.

To fix the American health care financing system we have will require lots of new thinking. The kind of thinking offered by John McCain and the Wyden-Bennett bill, among many other ideas liberal and conservative, need to be part of the mix.

While the McCain Health Plan and the Wyden-Bennett Health Plan are similar in that they would both build on a system of individual responsibility by moving away from America's traditional reliance on the employer-based system, the two plans are very different in other critical areas. Wyden-Bennett goes well past the McCain Health Plan in assuring virtually universal access to health insurance. In fact, one could see Wyden-Bennett as a hybrid of both the McCain and Obama health plans because it couples the individual responsibility concepts conservatives like (and the National Coalition on Benefits objects to) with the liberal notion that we need to get everyone covered sooner rather than later.

For America's largest corporations to enter the debate at this early stage and demand that the Wyden-Bennett bill--and the McCain Health Plan by not so subtle inference--come off the table because they would build a health care system on a platform different than the one devised in 1974 was outrageous on the face of it.

It is hopeful to hear that this might not be where corporate America stands after all.

Earlier posts:

Watch the Wyden-Bennett "Healthy Americans Act"--It Could Be the Place Health Care Reform Compromise Takes Place in 2009

So I Guess the HMOs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Round Table, and Over 150 Big Corporations Are Opposed to McCain's Health Plan?
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