A broad healthcare coalition claiming to represent 150 million Americans last week called for congressional action to achieve universal coverage as part of a sweeping overhaul of the healthcare system.
But despite the group's optimism that the time is ripe for action, the political reality may be that its recommendations amount to little more than wishful thinking.
The nonpartisan National Coalition on Health Care sought to capitalize on growing concern among Americans about healthcare to argue that incremental approaches to fixing the system have failed. Members of the coalition, which represents various provider groups, insurers, pension funds, and consumer and religious groups, said that legislators are finally waking up to the drastic measures that need to be taken.
"The only question is how soon our political leaders will endorse this plan," said Sean Harrigan, president of the board of the California Public Employees Retirement System, a member of the coalition. CalPERS is not only the largest U.S. pension fund, but it is also the country's third-largest purchaser of healthcare after the federal government and General Motors Corp.
The coalition does not support any particular strategy for achieving universal coverage but offered several options including employer mandates, expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program and subsidies for low-income earners. Its proposal targeted four other long-term goals: lowering healthcare costs to bring them in line with other economic inflation indicators; improving the quality, safety and value of care; making the financing of healthcare more equitable; and simplifying healthcare administration.
However, industry observers gave the proposal little hope. "They're being unrealistic about what's good health policy and unrealistic about politics," said Robert Helms, resident scholar in health policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
According to the group, the healthcare system can't be repaired short of a total overhaul. The number of uninsured will rise to more than 51 million in 2006, up at least 17% from 43.6 million in 2002, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the coalition said, while annual premium costs per family will increase to more than $14,500 by 2006, more than double the figure in 2001.
Mary Grealy, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council, a coalition of healthcare business executives, criticized the coalition's suggestions on several fronts. Employer mandates are a "nonstarter" because employers would revolt, and price controls would stifle competition and innovation, she said. "As I go through this document, I just see government, government, government," Grealy said. "I don't see this as a how-do-you-get-both-sides-together proposal."