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Reforming health care

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Today, a large group of employers and business leaders are joining forces to form the Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform. We are dedicated to engaging in one of the most crucial domestic policy debates of our time the health of every American. From Capitol Hill to state legislatures to inside our boardrooms, we are committed to solving this crisis, because it threatens the health of our people and the economy.

The statistics are both startling and motivating. At the current growth rate, health-care costs will be 25 percent of the United States gross domestic product by 2012. By next year, the average Fortune 500 firm will have a health-care bill that exceeds its net income. And today, 47 million Americans are living and raising their families without health insurance.

Action must be taken to stop these alarming trends. We believe health-care reform must happen before 2009. Waiting longer until 2012 or beyond is simply not good enough for the millions of uninsured Americans, businesses struggling to provide affordable benefits or the insured who fight to keep up with rising costs for coverage and care.

The time has come for all of us to stop talking about this problem and start solving it. The Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform exists to do just that. We are an active, working group of leaders willing to do what it takes to see this debate move forward. We agree that any lasting solution to this problem must be based on five core principles.

First, because market forces are largely absent in today's health-care system, costs are spiraling out of control. Market forces, if properly introduced, can fix this problem. Through consumer orientation and transparency we can create a health-care system that delivers better outcomes and lowers costs.

Second, every American should be required to carry health insurance. At the same time, everyone should have access to affordable health care services with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions. The market should drive these policies, with government, business and individuals sharing responsibility to ensure affordable coverage is achieved.

Third, we must provide assistance for low-income individuals to obtain coverage. Providing financial assistance will enable all Americans to have the routine and preventive health care they need through traditional venues, physicians and clinics, instead of emergency rooms.

Fourth, since 50 percent to 70 percent of total health-care costs are behavior driven, health-care plans must be designed to promote healthy behavior starting with prevention and wellness and incorporating full-care management programs for those with chronic and acute conditions. Individuals and families should have personal financial incentives for adopting healthy behaviors and disincentives for poor behavior. Federal and state governments could advance this immediately by instilling these same provisions for government-administered plans and workers, including members of Congress.

Finally, individuals must be able to purchase health care in the same tax-advantaged way as businesses do now. Today, health-care premiums are tax-deductible to business, but not to individuals. The time has come to end this World War II-era policy and level the playing field.

For decades, we have known this crisis was reaching the point of no return. Countless commissions, coalitions and boards have been formed to confront it, but a solution has yet to come. We no longer have the luxury of allowing that pattern to continue; the consequences of inaction are too great to be ignored. The health and welfare of every American is at stake.

The private sector can bring innovative solutions to the table. Within our own companies, many of us have experienced the incredible results of reform by acting to reduce costs and provide better care. We have an enormous opportunity to help people live longer, healthier lives by encouraging our nation to prevent the preventable. We can put our economy on the path to thrive in the global marketplace without the weight of this broken system holding it back. Through smart reforms, we can reduce this country's health-care bill by 25 percent and in a way that doesn't require large revenue increases.

Now is the time for passion and leadership. Now is the time for cooperation, for setting aside politics and platitudes, for the business community to roll up our sleeves and work with all stakeholders to achieve comprehensive and meaningful results. Together we can force action and results from policies that create market-based solutions that solve the cost and coverage problems in this country.

Steve Burd is CEO of Safeway Inc.

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