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Health Care, Labor and Business Leaders Call for Universal Coverage

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Oakland, Calif. (March 5, 2003) - A powerful collaboration of key leaders in organized labor, health care, and the business community joined today in support of Cover the Uninsured Week (March 10-16) by pledging to work with federal and state policymakers in pursuit of a system of universal health care coverage. Prominent among those calling for urgent action were John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, George Halvorson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, Inc., Francis J. Crosson, MD, executive director of the Permanente Federation, and Peter Lee, president and CEO of the Pacific Business Group on Health.

Noting that more than 41 million Americans lack health insurance, Sweeney, speaking on behalf of 13 million working women and men nationwide, warned that the current crisis is likely to worsen in the absence of fundamental reforms in the way American health care is financed and delivered. "As a nation, we must commit ourselves to the principle and the reality of universal coverage - quality health care for every American. Failure to come together and find solutions now, including relief from the current trend towards rapidly increasing health care costs, will consign millions more working Americans and their children to live under the constant cloud of inadequate health care and the possibility of financial ruin. In the richest and most medically-advanced nation on earth, that is totally unacceptable," he said.

The leaders point to statistics showing that health insurance coverage trends are worsening again due to rising unemployment and the sharp increase in health insurance premiums. Many experts foresee double-digit increases in health care costs for years to come, potentially doubling the nation's overall health costs within five years and adding significantly to the ranks of the uninsured.

While leaving the door open to a variety of potential approaches to the problem, the leaders agreed that the time has come for major, comprehensive health care system reforms, not incremental, ad hoc fixes. "The situation demands that we respond with a sense of urgency, determination and boldness," said George Halvorson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, Inc., the nation's largest non-profit health care organization. "In fact, we should look on this crisis as an opportunity. We need solutions that would extend quality care not only to those who are currently uninsured, but that would also promote greater competition based on improved quality, safety and affordability."

Francis J. Crosson, MD, executive director of the Permanente Federation, agreed that the issue demands urgent attention. "Lack of insurance is not just an inconvenience or a financial problem for the poor. It's a very serious health problem in and of itself, and it affects all of us, not just the uninsured. We need to think of the lack of insurance as a disease that has grown to epidemic proportions," he said.

Crosson, a pediatrician, pointed to national studies showing that uninsured Americans are more likely to delay seeking care when they need it, and are less likely than the insured to use preventive services, such as cancer screening or routine eye and foot exams for diabetics that prevent blindness and amputations. National data show that only 51% of uninsured children had a physician visit during the previous year, compared with 76% of insured children. "The lack of timely care and the lack of preventive care that results from lack of insurance means that when the uninsured do get sick, they tend to get sicker than the rest of us. In addition, because the care they finally receive is so unsystematic and episodic, it costs more and is less effective, so they have higher mortality rates," said Crosson.

"We need more than incremental reform to fix a health care system that today allows millions to go without coverage, while at the same time fails to recognize and reward care that is higher quality and more cost-effective," said Peter Lee, head of PBGH, the nation's largest health care purchasing coalition. "The fact is, we can't afford to let this situation continue. The high rate of uninsured and the frequent low reimbursements for those in public programs drives a cycle of cost-shifting, as hospitals and doctors raise rates to recover the cost of unreimbursed or under-reimbursed services. Cost shifting onto premium-paying employers and consumers accelerates a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle as some employers drop coverage, leading to higher rates of uninsured. The system is unsustainable."

Lee argued that a rational reform of the health system could redirect tens of billions of dollars currently spent on the uninsured into more effective and efficient models of care delivery. "It's not as if a solution requires all new money," he said. "We're already spending a huge amount of money, but much of that spending is wasted and we have inefficiency that is driving up the costs for everybody. By extending coverage to every American and at the same time reforming the payments to providers to reward better care, we would not only reap benefits in improved health for the uninsured, but care to all Americans would be improved. In addition, the expanded insurance pool would mean every individual would bear a lower share of total costs. Fundamental reforms that address universal coverage and reward higher quality care would be a win-win situation."

About the AFL-CIO
The mission of the AFL-CIO is to improve the lives of working families by bringing economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our nation. The AFL-CIO seeks to accomplish its mission by helping workers join together to win good wages, health care and other benefits, and a voice at work; building a strong political voice for workers in our nation; and providing a voice for workers in their communities and in the domestic and international economies. The AFL-CIO is comprised of 66 affiliate unions that represent more than 13 million working men and women.

About Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser Permanente is America's leading integrated health care organization. Founded in 1945, it is a non-profit, group-practice prepayment program with headquarters in Oakland, California. Kaiser Permanente serves the health care needs of 8.4 million members in 9 states and the District of Columbia. Today, it encompasses Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc.; Kaiser Foundation Hospitals; and the Permanente Medical Groups, as well as an affiliation with Group Health Cooperative based in Seattle.

Nationwide, Kaiser Permanente includes approximately 125,000 technical, administrative and clerical employees and about 11,000 physicians representing all specialties.

About Pacific Business Group on Health
Pacific Business Group on Health (PBGH) a major, non-profit coalition of 47 large health care purchasers, is dedicated to improving health care quality and availability while moderating costs. Its members annually spend more than $1.5 billion to provide health coverage to approximately 3 million employees, retirees and their families. PBGH also operates PacAdvantage, a small-group purchasing pool providing health insurance to nearly 13,000 small businesses in California.

Kathy Roeder, AFL-CIO
(202) 637-5018

Matthew Schiffgens, Kaiser Permanente
(510) 271-6813

Clark Miller, Pacific Business Group on Health
(415) 615-6302


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