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CEOs For Universal Healthcare | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

CEOs For Universal Healthcare

As a recent Washington Post business article reported (an article that should have been on the Post's front page!), manufacturers are quietly embracing the concept of universal healthcare. While the major papers have been virtually MIA on this issue, Kirstin Downey, a Post staff writer, admirably called attention to how rising costs are roiling the debate over healthcare reform. Sen. Kerry and leading Democrats should pay close attention to this trend. It could be a very helpful issue in a close election.

Downey reports that employers saw their healthcare costs rise 12 percent last year, on the heels of a 16 percent increase in 2002. Such dramatic increases have damaged manufacturing in America, prompted labor strikes, and encouraged corporations to ship jobs overseas.

Back in 1994, Jack Smith, a former CEO of General Motors, went on record as "personally favor[ing] the Canadian system." Smith, an anomaly ten years ago, today looks like the weatherman who knew which way the wind was blowing. The volume and intensity of anguished, bitter public complaints by business executives about the costs and burdens of health care has grown to major proportions.

In one of the more exciting if little-noticed developments for progressives, a coalition is beginning to emerge that includes not just CEOs but also America's doctors and unionized workers. Executives from the Big Three automakers, upset over insanely high healthcare costs, recently sent the Canadian government a letter urging Canada to keep its single-payer system so GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford could hold operating expenses down.

And why not? After all, in 2003, GM spent $4.5 billion on health care for its US-based employees and retirees, at a cost of $1,200 per car, according to a GM spokesman. "If we cannot get our arms around this [healthcare] issue as a nation, our manufacturing base and many of our other businesses are in danger," warned Ford's Vice Chairman Allan Gilmour.

The nation's supermarket chains, for their part, facing stiff competition from non-union rivals including Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, have a healthcare crisis on their hands. In 1999, Giant and Safeway paid $112 million in medical costs for employees in the Washington, DC region; by 2003, they were spending $180 million on healthcare subsidies. These rising costs, and the chains' efforts to slash workers' subsidies, recently prompted 70,000 California grocery workers to go on strike. Desperately looking for ways to stay competitive, the supermarket chains could find their salvation in a single-payer system. (Workers too would benefit tremendously, receiving guaranteed access to healthcare at affordable prices regardless of their employment status.)

Ditto for other corporations. William Rainville, CEO of Kadant Inc., a papermaking manufacturer, recently told the Washington Post that healthcare costs make operating in the US nearly unsustainable. Kadant says it will spend $6,500 on health care in 2004 for each of its American employees. But, the single-payer system in Canada is so inexpensive that Kadant is considering moving all its operations north of the border.

Labor unions, meanwhile, have good reason to support a single-payer system. The average worker saw out-of-pocket healthcare spending climb from $1,890 in 2000 to $2,790 in 2003; a 48 percent jump, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, the percentage of employers that fully subsidized health care for employees' families dropped from 27 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2003.

According to a Harvard Medical School survey, 64 percent of Massachusetts doctors recently endorsed a national single-payer system. Frustrated by the costs and cumbersome paperwork, doctors said they would gladly cut fees if it would eliminate those pesky piles of insurance claims forms.

"Most doctors are fed up with the health care system," explains Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, an author and a leading reformer. "It's not just the paperwork and insurance hassles, but knowing that many of our patients can't afford to fill the prescriptions we write for them. And millions of people who are uninsured avoid care altogether until they're desperately ill."

A single-payer healthcare system will also save jobs, increase profit margins and attack the mushrooming problem of outsourcing jobs to India, China and other nations boasting cheap labor markets. In addition, by enacting a single-payer system, the US will significantly reduce health care administrative costs, saving an estimated $286 billion annually. That's enough to cover over 43 million uninsured Americans, create a real, universal prescription drug benefit, retrain laid-off employees, and strengthen preventative care.

America's conservative critics like to portray Canada's single-payer healthcare as socialistic, inefficient, and second-rate. A vast majority of Canadians, however, give consistently high marks to their single-payer system. Moreover, the Canadians, on average, live two years longer than us. (If that's not an endorsement for single-payer reform, I don't know what is.) If the politicians and media refuse to lead the fight for universal health care, then enlightened CEOs and doctors, perhaps, will.

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