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Business leaders' opposition to public health insurance option takes chutzpah

Where do they expect the thousands of workers they've laid off and their families to get coverage?

November 01, 2009|DAVID LAZARUS

Eastman Kodak Co. has said sayonara to about 22,000 workers over the last five years. Verizon Communications Inc. says it will have handed about 16,000 workers their hats by Dec. 31 -- and it is already looking ahead to the possibility of more layoffs next year.

So it took more than a little chutzpah for the chief executives of both companies to go before reporters the other day to denounce a government health insurance plan as being bad for America.

Where do they expect all the people they've thrown into the unemployment line to get coverage?

And what about the families of all those people?

And what about the millions of other American workers who either can't get employer-provided health coverage or who have been rejected by private insurers for one reason or another?

It takes your breath away to see corporate leaders so brazenly placing profits before people's lives.

Moreover, it's only going to get worse. WellPoint Inc., the nation's largest for-profit health insurer, said last week that it expects fourth-quarter earnings to decline as more workers are laid off and lose their insurance.

"The number of insured lives is going down as the recession drives layoffs in the commercial group of business," said Ken Goulet, CEO of WellPoint's commercial business division.

At least he had the decency to describe those losing coverage as people. Too often, you get the feeling that health insurers see us as little more than profit centers and balance-sheet liabilities.

Kodak and Verizon are both members of the Business Roundtable, an organization of CEOs whose companies collectively provide health insurance to more than 35 million workers and their families.

The Business Roundtable called last week's news conference to add its voice to other corporate critics of a public health insurance plan, particularly now that it's looking more likely that bills emerging from the House and Senate will include such an option.

"A public plan would neither manage cost nor encourage innovation," declared Kodak CEO Antonio Perez, who heads the Business Roundtable's healthcare reform efforts. "We believe it is the wrong direction for fixing our healthcare system."

Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg said the group's members are open to tinkering with the existing healthcare system, but a public option "will take this entire debate in a direction that would not be acceptable to Business Roundtable."

The CEOs' main worry is that millions of people would flock to a public health plan because it could cost less than coverage offered by private insurers. Many of these people may be the younger workers prized by private insurers because they pay regular premiums but seldom make claims. This, the CEOs say, would only make coverage more expensive as private insurers face smaller and less-healthy risk pools, and cope with greater demands for compensation from doctors and hospitals.

"The costs for all of us in the system will continue to go up and again put pressure on employers to get out of the healthcare system," warned John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable.

And there's your nightmare scenario: More employers abandon their role as providers of health insurance, thus driving more people into the arms of a government plan, which would inexorably lead to -- gasp! -- socialized medicine.

This is, of course, nonsense. No one's talking about the government taking over hospitals or medical clinics, or in any way telling healthcare providers how to practice medicine.

The entire healthcare reform effort centers on providing coverage to the roughly 47 million people in the country now going without, and reining in costs that now result in about a third of all healthcare dollars being squandered on bureaucratic overhead.

And really, where do business leaders -- especially CEOs with their gold-plated benefits -- get off telling Americans what sort of healthcare is best for them?

According to Forbes, the country's 500 largest public companies have laid off more than 611,000 workers since the beginning of the year.

For example, Caterpillar Inc. has bid farewell to more than 27,000 workers. Pfizer Inc. has said adios to almost 20,000 workers. AT&T Inc. has slammed the door on about 12,000 workers.

In the financial sector, Citigroup Inc. has handed walking papers to about 52,000 workers. Bank of America Corp. is getting rid of 35,000 workers. JPMorgan Chase & Co. is turning its back on about 14,000 people.

Each of these companies is a member of the Business Roundtable, as are dozens more of the biggest names in the business world.

Some laid-off workers may have already found work, and health coverage, elsewhere. But most, judging from the nation's steadily rising unemployment rate (9.5% as of September), are still without jobs.

Meanwhile, most leading employers have increased premiums, co-pays and deductibles for workers remaining on the payroll, making health coverage less affordable with each passing year.

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