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Businesses, unions form coalition to push for universal health care

WASHINGTON—Sensing that the time is right for political change, a group of business and union leaders led by Wal-Mart and one of the retailer's staunchest critics called Wednesday for universal health coverage for all Americans by 2012.

Known as Better Health Care Together, the group is the latest coalition to call for fundamental changes in the way health care is paid for in America.

The group believes that U.S. employers can't compete internationally because they can't afford rising employee health care costs. It's an issue that labor leaders know all too well, since most recent contract disputes stem from trying to retain hard-won health care benefits as employers move to shift the costs to workers.

"It's long past time to move health care—a public good—from the corporate balance sheet to the public balance sheet," said coalition member Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America.

Appearing at a press conference, the group outlined principles that would guide its support for measures to cover 47 million uninsured Americans. Those guidelines say that every citizen should have quality, affordable health coverage that should be paid for and managed through business, individual and government initiatives.

Moreover, the group believes that Americans must get better value for their health care spending and must take responsibility for maintaining and protecting their health.

Coalition members, who include former Republican Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, offered no proposals to achieve those goals. But Colin Evans, the director of policy and standards at Intel Corp., said the group would favor proposals that cut waste in the health care system.

"We're looking for ideas to drive efficiency," Evans said.

Coalition members also include the unlikely pair of Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr. and Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents nearly 1 million janitors nationwide. The SEIU helped form Wal-Mart Watch, which has been sharply critical of the company's labor practices, pay scales and employee health benefits.

Stern said he realized that he and Scott shared some common ground on health care after he heard Scott speak about the need for business and labor to work together on the issue. After Stern contacted the CEOs of large Fortune 500 companies about addressing those problems, he and Scott ended up having several face-to-face meetings, Stern said.

"I think it's time to admit (the) employer-based health care system is dead," Stern said. "It's a relic of an industrial economy. America can't compete in the global economy when we ask our businesses to put the price of health care on the cost of their products when their competitors around the world do not."

Scott said that the government alone "won't and can't solve this crisis. We have to work together."

James Cicconi, the senior executive vice president of AT&T and a coalition member, said his company spent $5 billion in 2006 on health care for 1.2 million current and former employees and their families.

Podesta, now CEO of the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy organization, said the group would meet with lawmakers and White House officials to discuss their position. It'll also work to enlist other businesses and unions to join.

In January, a similarly diverse group of business, consumer and health care organizations known as the Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured challenged Congress to pass its legislative proposals to cover more than 23 million uninsured Americans.

The group called for a five-year, $45 billion "Kids First Initiative" that would expand funding and eligibility for the State Children's Health Insurance Program and create a tax credit to help families buy job-based child coverage. The group also called for tax credits to help families pay for coverage.

States such as California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts already have universal health care proposals, and President Bush has proposed giving people who buy health insurance outside their workplaces the same tax break currently enjoyed by those with job-based coverage. But congressional Democrats have said that Bush's measure could encourage employers to stop providing health insurance and burden middle-class working families by having them pay for coverage themselves.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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