As the American Hospital Association celebrates its centennial anniversary (See special section, pages 44-66), the industry still faces one of its biggest challenges: providing access to care for America's uninsured. Outgoing AHA Chairman Reginald Ballantyne III discusses the association's response as a leader.
When I became chairman of the AHA, I posed a challenge to my colleagues: "If we don't lead, who will?"
Their answer was the AHA program "The Campaign for Coverage . . . A Community Health Challenge." This response proves there are community leaders willing and able to tackle a serious problem affecting every community in America. The campaign's goal is to reduce by 4 million the number of people without healthcare coverage.
The AHA board of trustees set that admittedly ambitious goal a year ago because hospitals and health systems should be advocates for the people they serve, insured or not.
Too many people are not insured. We knew the problem was enormous. Just look at the numbers:
Some 42 million Americans, including more than 10 million children, lack health insurance. That's more than at any time during the past 30 years.
Nearly 25% of the American work force is employed by companies that don't offer group health insurance to workers' families.
And consider this, at least every seventh person in a community is likely to have been without health insurance during the past year.
But we also know the nation's hospitals and health systems have the will and the strength to lead. Here's just part of the story: More than 300 hospitals across the country have responded to the campaign's call. They and their local partners-physicians, other caregivers, schools, government agencies and businesses-are bringing healthcare to those who otherwise would not have it. With leadership from their state and metropolitan associations, they have made the commitment to help us advance on that goal of providing coverage to 4 million more Americans. So far, their efforts target bringing some form of healthcare coverage to more than 830,000 people by year-end.
The heart of that commitment is community action initiatives.
A community action initiative is Valley Regional Healthcare in Claremont, N.H., leading a community effort to put healthcare coverage within the financial means of small businesses.
It's Memorial Hospital and Health System of South Bend, Ind., tithing a portion of its margin-10%-to provide up to two years of free healthcare to uninsured families.
It's Mercy Hospital of Philadelphia working with a local elementary school to bring healthcare to uninsured students.
It's Minidoka Memorial Hospital and Extended Care Facility in Rupert, Idaho, making sure all hospital staff, physicians and trustees receive healthcare coverage.
It's the health ministries of Daughters of Charity National Health System and Carondelet Health System of St. Louis, along with Catholic Charities U.S.A., working in the neighborhoods to identify and help enroll poor children in the Medicaid program.
And it's Allina Health System and Children's Healthcare of Minneapolis working in partnership to train and employ 150 low-income and uninsured city residents in permanent jobs at their facilities. These new workers come from neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 48% and unemployment is 18%.
Just as our members are joining with local partners, the AHA is building national partnerships. Because we believe working with national partners can help our members find local solutions, we're enlisting organizations such as the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Catholic Health Association, the Federation of American Health Systems, InterHealth, the March of Dimes, the National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions, the National Council of La Raza, Premier, VHA and others to help achieve our goal.
In addition, the AHA, as part of its commitment to the campaign, has established an early retirement benefits package that has the continuation of healthcare benefits as one of its cornerstones.
And we sent a message to every firm that furnishes the AHA with supplies and services: All future requests for proposals will ask prospective vendors if they provide healthcare coverage to their full-time employees. Preferences in awarding contracts will go to those that do. The Healthcare Association of New York State was first to apply this coverage standard to its purchasing contracts. Besides the AHA, others have followed suit.
Put all these activities together and you have a beautiful story-a story of hospitals, health systems, community partners, associations and political leaders coming together to give their neighbors the security and dignity of healthcare coverage.
Still, as important as these efforts are, people always will fall through the cracks in today's healthcare patchwork. Government must make a stronger partner. That's why the AHA, state and metropolitan hospital and health system associations will continue to push for legislation to improve access and coverage for our neediest citizens.
The job is not finished, and we have considerable work ahead. To reach our goal of 4 million, we need the commitment and determination of all hospitals and health systems and all our state and metropolitan hospital and health system associations.
If everyone makes the commitment, the campaign will show America what hospitals and health systems can do together. We can show the nation that the AHA's vision-a society of healthy communities where all individuals reach their highest potential for health-is attainable.
Ballantyne, the AHA's 1997 chairman, is president of PMH Health Resources in Phoenix. John King, president and chief executive officer of Portland, Ore.-based Legacy Health System, will be installed as the new chairman at the association's annual membership meeting next week.