- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

After hearing the most recent Census data on uninsured Americans, it would be easy to believe that the employer-based health care system is headed for the scrap heap of history. The new numbers add fuel to a fire that’s already raging: the push for universal public health care. At least one Democratic presidential candidate is pushing for a government takeover of the system. There has even been speculation that corporations themselves want the government to take over so they can pass off their obligations to taxpayers, cut costs and boost profits.

A closer look, however, shows that, as Mark Twain might have said, reports of the death of the employer-based health-care system have been greatly exaggerated. To be sure, Business Roundtable, an association of the nation’s top CEOs, has joined with other groups — including “strange bedfellows” such as AARP and SEIU — to urge our political leaders to reform the health-care system. But we also believe strongly in the existing model of companies providing these benefits to their employees.

Our companies now provide health-care coverage for more than 35 million Americans. We want to continue to provide this benefit, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it promotes prosperity. By offering high-quality health-care plans, businesses are able to recruit and retain good employees, and increase employee satisfaction and productivity.

At the same time, as the Census data underscores, the current system isn’t working. Consumers and businesses alike are paying a lot of money into a system that is inefficient and does not provide a quality return on our investment. To fix it, we believe that our political leaders and consumers must work with us in moving toward change.

But efforts to expand health-care coverage will be moot if we don’t concurrently work to make the system more efficient itself. One critical and long-overdue step toward this end is to bring the benefits of information technology and comparison shopping to the purchase and delivery of health care. It’s astounding that we can access bank account information and cash by using a single card anywhere in the country, but if we are rushed to the emergency room there’s no way for doctors and nurses to easily view our health records. Imagine the efficiencies that would be created in health care with the help of technology: We could free up valuable time and resources and create boundless opportunity for improved delivery of care with fewer deadly medical errors.

Congress should set us down this path by passing so-called “health IT” legislation — which would create a secure, uniform, interoperable system — immediately.

Our nation’s leaders also should guarantee consumers access to cost and quality information about health-care services in their communities and information about the effectiveness of all aspects of our health care system. Consumers should not know more about the quality of their cars and the best mp3 speakers on the market than they do about the quality of health care available to them in their communities — but sadly, this is currently the case. One way to improve the availability of this information is to require federal programs that research the effectiveness of health systems and treatment options to disseminate this information widely. This will enable Americans to make informed choices about their health plans, physicians and treatment regimens.

Government action alone will not solve the challenge. Consumers also must begin to be more invested in the health care they receive. Every American has a responsibility to obtain health-care coverage, even if only catastrophic coverage. Consumers also have an obligation to tend to their own wellness — thereby cutting down on the exorbitant costs of treating chronic disease — by adopting healthier lifestyles and taking more preventative care measures. American businesses can help — and they are. Companies have adopted innovative programs that make it easy for workers to get information on healthy living, and they continue to look for ways to partner with their employees in this area.

Make no mistake: The employer-based health care system is a troubled one, and fixing it is an extremely difficult challenge. However, America’s business leaders do not want to abandon the system or their responsibilities. We want business, government and consumers to act now and act together to make the health-care system better and more affordable for everyone.

John Castellani is president of Business Roundtable, an association of 160 chief executive officers.

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