The Catholic Health Association has become the third provider group to champion the uninsured in America.
Calling the current healthcare system "dangerously dysfunctional," Rev. Michael Place, the CHA's president and chief executive officer, told reporters last week his association wants to start a dialogue about healthcare reform so that presidential candidates will have to address the issue in the 2000 campaign. "We want to be the fingernail on the blackboard," Place said.
The CHA's announcement comes after much talk on Capitol Hill about the growing number of uninsured Americans, which totaled more than 43 million in 1997, according to the most recent estimates. Insurers began harping on the issue earlier this year, when patient-protection legislation loomed large on Congress' agenda (March 8, p. 38).
Two other provider groups, though, beat the St. Louis-based CHA to the punch on making access to care their cause.
Last December, the American Medical Association declared itself the "national champion" of universal access, announcing that the AMA's highest priority is to make sure every citizen has access to care and a way to pay for it (Dec. 14, 1998, p. 20).
And three years before that, the American Hospital Association made access to care one of its highest policy goals, launching an ambitious plan called Campaign for Coverage to get the uninsured enrolled in government health insurance plans.
Place said the CHA has discussed the issue internally for more than a month. He also said the CHA wants to form a coalition with other healthcare organizations on the issue of access.
Congress is listening. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) is expected to reintroduce legislation that would create a national health insurance program to cover all Americans. His plan would also offer tax credits to uninsured people whose employers do not offer health insurance-a traditionally Republican concept (April 19, p. 48).
Another Democrat who is interested in the tax-credit plan is Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.). Stark wants to expand Medicare to cover all Americans and is considering sponsoring a bill that would offer tax breaks, although it is not clear if he would endorse McDermott's proposal.
However, Place said he didn't want to pin the CHA to any specific reform model.
"We have to find a way to rise above the fractionalism," he said. "We need to start with the 'hows,' not with which bill we should support. We don't want to immediately walk into a partisan trap."
The real issue, Place said, is whether Congress and the public see universal healthcare coverage as a national commitment.