William George: Health Reform That Works for Labor and Industry

Regardless of political allegiance, few would disagree that America deserves a health care system that provides universal access to quality care at an affordable cost.

According to the Census Bureau’s latest report, more than 47 million Americans lack health insurance — and the recession could drive that number higher. Meanwhile, health care spending is projected to reach a record high of $2.5 trillion this year.

This is why healthcare reform is an issue that transcends partisan politics. And it’s why representatives from organized labor and the pharmaceutical industry have been working together for several years — through The Pharmaceutical Industry Labor- Management Association — in support of a pragmatic approach to comprehensive healthcare reform for all Americans.

We believe it’s best to build upon our current employer-and union-based plans. The resulting system should encourage innovative approaches to coverage, like eliminating copayments for preventative measures such as check-ups, and creating incentives that promote healthy living. Plans should also be flexible and diverse, offering an array of coverage options that cater to the individual needs of patients.

It’s also important that health care is used and administered properly. In particular, the under-use of appropriate health services by many Americans is causing an explosion in the incidence of chronic disease. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that Americans, on average, received only 55 percent of the care recommended by physicians.

And it’s when patients don’t get the preventive medical attention they need that chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease become more likely. These and other chronic diseases account for 75 percent of annual health expenditures, even though they are, in many cases, preventable.

Reducing costs by lowering the incidence of and better managing chronic conditions is also important for the economy at large. Especially in this current economic downturn, many businesses are straining to pay for employee health benefits. A health care system committed to eliminating waste, and preventing costly chronic illnesses would go a long way towards turning the economy around, and creating countless jobs in the process.

Action must also be taken to rectify growing health care inequalities that exist along racial, ethnic and geographic lines. In particular, health care professionals should possess more of an understanding of minority culture. Such a shift would allow physicians, nurses, and administrators to forge a stronger bond with minority patients, and help those individuals take appropriate preventative health measures before they develop serious conditions.

The debate over healthcare reform has long been weighed down by tired ideological bickering and interest-group politics. But it’s time for all of us — Republicans, Democrats, business, and labor alike — to get behind comprehensive reforms that we know will work.

We are encouraged by the commitment of the pharmaceutical industry to reduce by half the cost of brand name drugs under the coverage gap in Medicare Part D. This substantial contribution can only heighten the opportunity for successful reform.

William George is President of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. Leo Jardot is the Vice President of Government Relations for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

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