Coalition Calls for Health Reform

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Most politicians, voters and analysts alike have all assumed that the 2008 Presidential campaign, like the midterm elections in 2006, would continue to be a referendum on Iraq and little else. But the growing call for comprehensive health care reform from representatives of major corporations, labor unions, America's governors, interest groups and the public has become so strong that it could actually give the war a run for its money.

A Wednesday meeting in New York City involving prominent members of all those groups was the latest manifestation of the passionate and organized drive to get Presidential candidates (and the next President) to make health care reform the top domestic priority.

Organized by an ad hoc organization called Better Health Care Together, the meeting was meant to publicize the group's shared principles and to announce both new members and a drive for commitments to reform from the Presidential candidates of both parties.

The coalition was launched in February of this year and has adopted four principles: quality, affordable health insurance for every American; individual responsibility for protecting and maintaining health; improved value for health care dollars spent; and broad participation in finding a solution. Their hope is to have the system on the path to change by 2012 by making it a centerpiece of the 2008 election debate.

Among their many challenges is the one symbolized by the members of the public who were at the event — or, rather, who were outside the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Scores of members of the group Wake Up Wal-Mart were protesting the meeting, accusing the company of being part of the country's health care problem, rather than the solution.

Representatives of big business at the gathering included executives from General Mills, Qwest and, most notably Wal-Mart, which has become for some a symbol of the failure of American corporations to provide robust and affordable insurance to its employees. Major companies in the United States employ many of the nation's more than 40 million uninsured. There for big labor was Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, a long-time champion of health care reform who has been criticized by some on the left for working in coalition with Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott on this effort. Pennsylvania's Democratic governor Ed Rendell and California's Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger (appearing by satellite ) were there, both discussing their major ongoing efforts to pass comprehensive reform this year. The ideological breadth of the coalition was also represented by the interest group members, including the liberal Center for American Progress (headed by Bill Clinton's chief of staff John Podesta) and the business group the Committee for Economic Development.

As divisive and complex as the Iraq war has been, health care reform promises to be an even bigger challenge, in part because of its vast expense, but more so because of the polarizing impact it continues to have on the country. A member of the coalition, former Republican Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee, compared the challenge of reform to the bipartisan efforts made on civil rights in the 1960s and the environment in the 1970s. Baker knows Washington's political culture has changed for the worse since he retired several years ago, so while his description of the scope of the problem is accurate, the difficulty of achieving it in the current bitter climate is considerable.

As the Clintons learned during the last major effort to change the medical financing system, major interest group and corporate opposition can pick a plan apart, and the specters of increased taxes (a feature of the state reform plans), increased government bureaucracy, and cuts in payments to health care providers means that blocking serious change isn't very difficult.

But opinion polls continue to show high public interest in the issue — a fact not lost on the Democratic Presidential candidates, who talk regularly about the need for comprehensive reform, or even the Republican candidates, who do not, yet. And as the size and broad-based influence of the group Better Health Care Together is putting together suggests, there is now a large and diverse coalition that believes that the nation can simultaneously fight a war in Iraq and begin the process of making the biggest single social policy change in American history.