Families USA Health Action 2008: An Alternative Plan

Families USA is an impressive organization that has built a formidable platform over the year through its base, consumers. But to achieve the reforms it advocates for, it must leverage that platform with the one group that has enough strength and motive to bring meaningful reforms to fruition: large employers.

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A wonderful meeting (Full disclosure: They brought me in to blog my impressions.), The Families USA conference that ended Saturday brought together some impressive Congressional politicians – Nancy Pelosi, Tom Daschle, Ken Salazar, Blanche Lincoln – and true health care experts – Don Berwick, Tony Fauci – with “consumer advocates” from around the country.

I thoroughly enjoyed the people at the conference. They were, for the most part, knowledgeable about health care and committed to driving a better system. (My favorites were a group of California Gray Panthers, all of whom were VERY up on the issues). There were also bright young people relatively early in their careers, and representatives from community health advocacy organizations around the country, all fervently dedicated to a better, more equitable health system.

My concern was that I believe this group under-appreciates the influence of health care lobbies over Congress and the policy process. They WANT things to change for the better, and they advocate for approaches they KNOW are more logical and reasonable than the way health care is currently done. So why WOULDN’T we do it that way?

The answer, of course, is because it would damage Congress’ largest contributors. Almost every politician I heard speak patronized this crowd, making a point to tell them that their input was vital. Would that it were so. If it were, Congress wouldn’t take the money it does from health care interests throughout the continuum, and shape policy for their benefit rather than ours. And, please note, the lobbying rules didn’t change substantially when the Democrats retook control.

Families USA’s leader is a warm, brilliant, articulate guy (and great dancer!) named Ron Pollack, who has guided this organization for years and made it into the health care consumer advocacy powerhouse it is today. He has a clear, unifying, noble vision for how American health care ought to be delivered and financed, evidenced by the caliber of speakers who agreed to talk at this conference.

Unfortunately I don’t believe we can get there by relying on consumer advocates. Ardent and well-intentioned as they may be, they lack a power base, and simply cannot compete with large corporations for the attentions of Congress. I hope I’m wrong about this, but this is why I doubt that meaningful reform will take place after the elections. Even if we get a President who is disposed to real change, getting there will require that Congress go along, and they’re beholden to the health care industry.

Families USA has built a formidable platform. There’s no reason why, quietly, discretely, this group couldn’t reach out to certain non-health care business leaders and groups, explain how their interests align with those of non-HC business – we all seek a more stable and sustainable health system that allows the nation to be healthier and more economically competitive – and facilitate a new coalition that could overwhelm the power wielded by the health care sector. After all, they’re 1/7th of the economy. Non-Health Care business is 6/7ths.

They’re just looking for someone with a compelling reason and a plan to come together, and help us all resolve this issue so we can get on with other equally pressing matters that face the nation.

About Brian Klepper

Brian Klepper is a health care analyst, commentator and a Principal in Worksite Health Advisors.
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