SEIU chief says U.S. health care needs radical overhaul

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Andy Stern, the national union president who led a group of unions to break away from the AFL-CIO, told a group of Portland health care professionals Sept. 20 that America’s health care system is unsustainable in its current form and can’t be fixed by tinkering.

“Death to the employer-based health care system,” said Stern, president of the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union. “It will not work, and it is not sustainable. Employers are getting out. It’s becoming too expensive.”

Stern was a highlight at a conference on America’s “confusing, complex, and costly” health care system put together by the Oregon Health Forum, an ad-free publication that reports on the health care sector.

Family health coverage now costs $10,880 a year, Stern said, and with health care costs rising over 10 percent annually, is slated to reach $17,522 a year by 2010. In response, some employers are dropping coverage, and most employers are scaling back what health plans pay for.

“What we’re really doing is changing our health care system from comprehensive to catastrophic,” Stern said. “But we’re not having a debate about it.”

In industries that face foreign competition, Stern said, the burden of providing employee health care makes American businesses uncompetitive.

“We are not competitive in the world economy carrying the weight of health care on employers backs. And good employers are disadvantaged to bad ones, like Wal-Mart.”

Health care is in dire need of reform, Stern said, and not just in who pays, but in how much it costs. The current system gives too little incentive to restrain costs or improve efficiency.

“It’s nuts that I can go to China, put a card in a machine and get Chinese cash,” Stern said, “but I’ve got to fill out a paper form every time I go to the doctor listing my name and address and every medical condition I’ve had for the last 20 years.”

Stern said the times call for “revolution, not evolution” in overhauling the health care system, and the solution isn’t a matter of finding a good plan, but of finding the political will to enact it. “It’s not like we can’t take a trip and find out what every other industrialized country has done,” Stern said. The rest of the industrialized world has national health care systems, in which the government pays for health care, supported by taxes.

America, however, will need an American plan, Stern said. Asked to elaborate, Stern declined to commit to specifics, other than to say whatever system is devised should provide universal coverage with benefits as good as members of Congress get, should give individuals choices about doctors, and should be supported by contributions from individuals, employers and government.

Health care needs to be a right, not a privilege, Stern said, but before members of Congress find the political guts to take on the issue, they’re going to have to hear from employers.

“Where are the employer voices in this debate?” Stern asked. Are they going to be leaders, or losers?”

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