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.)