Businesses should let go of health care

Marketplace Staff Jul 10, 2009
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Businesses should let go of health care

Marketplace Staff Jul 10, 2009
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KAI RYSSDAL: President Obama restated the obvious in Rome today. Asked about the prospects for health care reform, the president said it’s going to take tough negotiations. There will be extended discussions about costs and services.

But commentator Matt Miller says that if a deal is finally reached, most of us will still be getting our coverage through our employers. Because that’s what business wants.


Matt Miller: America’s unique employer-based health care system is rooted in another century. When health care was cheap, U.S. firms faced little global competition and fending off socialism was a Cold War priority. Today, though, despite radically changed circumstances, corporate America remains in a time warp. Business resists the idea of government assuring a basic health benefit that might supplant its own role.

When you ask business leaders why this is the case, all you hear are sloppy arguments. Some say they need to offer health benefits to recruit talent. But if government assured a basic benefit, companies could still lure talent with extra offerings, as they do with extra pensions atop Social Security.

Others say that if the government steps up, business will end up paying more for health care but won’t be able to control it. But our employer-based system already delivers the costliest health care on the planet. And business won’t pay as much if the powerful business lobby makes permanently lowering business’s contribution to health costs its aim, rather than fighting off government altogether.

Steve Byrd, Safeway’s CEO, says that if government picked up the tab we’d lose cost cutting innovations — like lower premiums for workers who hit the gym or quit smoking — that some companies feel are essential. On that logic, Safeway ought to be running its own schools for employees, too, and raising its own army to protect them. That can’t be right. So what’s really going on in the corporate mind?

Common sense suggest only one answer: corporate America’s reflexive anti-government ideology now stands in the way of its self-interest. This reflex is not new. Business originally resisted child labor laws, the Federal Reserve, the SEC, Social Security, the Marshall Plan, national parks, federal aid to education and Medicare. The list is endless and embarrassing.

There’s still time for business to come to its senses before it signs up for another few decades of back-breaking health care duties when it has better things to do, like competing with China and India. As the health care endgame is negotiated, business has to realize that when it comes to its huge role in America’s welfare state, it’s okay and sensible, to let go.

Ryssdal: Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His most recent book is called “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.”

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