Entitlement reform remains priority for U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Group's chief cites 'regulatory flood' in healthcare.

Reforming America's costly entitlement programs again made it onto the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's annual jobs and growth agenda, Thomas Donohue, the business federation's president and CEO, announced in his yearly State of American Business address Thursday in Washington.

“As a nation, we must finally face up to the single biggest threat to our economic future—and that is our exploding national debt driven by runaway deficit spending, changing demographics and unsustainable entitlements,” Donohue said to a full audience in the chamber's Hall of Flags room.

He then laid out the five top issues in the organization's 2013 agenda, most of which mirror last year's goals. These include producing more energy, expanding trade and modernizing the regulatory system.

“The regulatory flood appears to be particularly pronounced in the healthcare arena,” Donohue said. “The new rules and mandates in the healthcare law—not to mention the extraordinary confusion businesses are facing as they try to comply—could drive costs through the roof and, in many cases, cause many Americans to lose the healthcare coverage that they've been accustomed to.” A new survey from the U.S. Chamber—which represents more than 3 million businesses—underscored Donohue's concerns. It found that 86% of small businesses indicated that regulations, rules and taxes will have a negative effect on their ability to operate, with healthcare regulations as the leading concern ahead of labor rules and environmental laws.

Meanwhile, the Chamber's ambitious agenda this year also calls for reforming the country's immigration and visa policies and tackling the nation's fiscal problems with a strategy that slows spending growth, reforms Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and overhauls the tax code.

“What we must address is the fundamental reality that, due to our aging society and increased life expectancy, the entitlement programs written and designed for an earlier era must be revised,” Donohue said. “We're not talking about cuts in absolute terms—we're simply talking about slowing the rate of increase,” he continued, adding that can be achieved with “reasonable adjustments” phased in over years. In a news conference later, Donohue did not provide specifics on what those might be, but rather outlined some broad issues to consider.

“There are all sorts of things you can do in modest co-payments, in the structure of the benefit programs, in refinements in how the healthcare is delivered, and people all know this,” Donohue said. The problem, he added, is communicating this to the American public. “Everybody knows it, but we can't figure out how to get up the courage to tell our fellow citizens that we damn well better do it or we'll face a crisis that could make it difficult for them.”



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