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Unlikely healthcare alliance forming

The top small-business group that helped doom a '90s plan will join a diverse coalition aiming to head off polarization.

November 01, 2007|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The leading small-business organization, a lobbying juggernaut that helped kill President Clinton's health plan in the 1990s, plans to announce today that it is signing up with a diverse political coalition promoting access to affordable healthcare for all.

The National Federation of Independent Business will join AARP, the Service Employees International Union and the Business Roundtable -- which represents chief executives of major companies -- in an umbrella group called Divided We Fail. The effort is aimed at ensuring that healthcare and retirement security are at the top of the presidential candidates' domestic agendas next year.

The strange bedfellows are trying to forestall the kind of political polarization that doomed Clinton's healthcare plan, as well as President Bush's effort to overhaul Social Security.

"What is missing right now is not policy ideas," said Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP, the senior lobby. "There are lots of policy ideas. What is missing right now is political will."

The new alliance does not mean that its members are united behind one specific approach to healthcare reform; significant disagreements still divide them.

But they do appear to agree on the need for action and -- with opinion polls showing widespread support for change -- they see their alliance as a vehicle for assuring that its members will have a role in formulating new policies.

"Access to affordable health insurance is the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 issue for small business across the United States," said Todd Stottlemyer, president of the National Federation of Independent Business. "For us not to be at the table in any serious conversations makes no sense. There really can't be a national debate about healthcare unless small business has a seat at the table."

The NFIB and AARP were on opposite sides of the hard-fought healthcare reform debate of 1993-94. The small-business group, with about 350,000 members and representatives in practically every congressional district, proved to be one of the more formidable adversaries of the Clinton plan. Its members were particularly incensed over a proposal that would have required most employers to contribute to the cost of coverage.

"They were vituperative," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal advocacy group that supports coverage for all. "They were joined at the spine with the far right of the Republican Party."

An estimated 60% of the 47 million uninsured people in the United States are small-business employees, owners and their family members.

The NFIB still opposes efforts to compel employers to pay for coverage, but Stottlemyer said the group's members are alarmed that healthcare costs have only become more onerous and unpredictable since the collapse of the 1990s effort.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), who as first lady played a lead role in developing and advocating her husband's plan, has also shifted ground.

Her plan as a Democratic presidential candidate would require individuals to get coverage, with government assistance for those who can't afford the entire cost. Large employers would have to contribute to the cost of workers' coverage, but companies with 25 employees or fewer would get incentives in the form of tax credits to offer health coverage or maintain an existing plan.

Stottlemyer said the small-business group would bring to the table a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and controlling costs, as well as preference for market-based solutions instead of government programs.

The latter position could put it at odds with coalition partners AARP and SEIU.

"If we get down to the point of disagreement, we'll arm-wrestle later," said AARP's Novelli.

Said Stottlemyer: "We have an obligation to at least actively listen to one another and engage with one another, instead of talking past one another or at one another."

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ricardo.alonso-zaldivar@ latimes.com

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