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Posted: January 26, 2009

Business leaders need to push health care reform


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President-elect Obama is about to take the reins of the government and officially begin his policy of "Change." A central pledge of his campaign: health care reform. But with the economy mired in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and policy makers focusing on righting the ship, enacting meaningful reform quickly might seem unlikely.

As business leaders, we should encourage health care reform. Simply doing nothing about health care is not an option anymore. The United States has the most expensive health care system in the world per capita, but lags behind most developed countries in virtually every health statistic worth mentioning, including life expectancy at birth. America's infant mortality rate is 6.8 per 1,000 births - more than twice as high as Japan, Sweden and Norway. In fact, too many American children receive too little medical attention. A UNICEF study ranks the United States second to last among 21 developed nations for child well being.

The situation is getting worse, not better, especially here in Texas, where our health rankings have dropped dramatically in just the past year. According to America's Health Rankings 2008, an annual report published through a partnership between United Health Foundation, the American Public Health Association and Partners for Prevention, our state dropped to 46th place from 37th last year, the biggest drop by any state. We also have an inordinately high rate of uninsured (25 percent as compared to the national average of 15.5 percent), a high incidence of infectious disease, limited access to primary care and a high percentage of children living in poverty. The report concludes that, in Texas, "overall healthiness may remain low in future years." 

So what's the answer? On one hand, many business leaders fear expensive government-run health care funded by higher taxes. On the other hand, average Americans fear allowing insurance and pharmaceutical companies to operate with fewer rules and regulations.

Containing rising medical costs and insurance premiums, while ensuring that employers aren't the only ones footing the bill, are essential elements of any health care reform plan. So is revising coverage rules about pre-existing conditions. But reformers point out that any proposal must require a mandate that everyone have health coverage - much like all motorists must buy car insurance. Spreading the cost of health care coverage will make sure that one group doesn't have to shoulder the burden. Ideally, such a program will ease the burden for businesses and ensure that they won't have to cut costs and/or be unable to add jobs.

Part of Obama's proposed plan calls for improving the use of technology in the administration of medical information. This effort will pay dividends in two areas: overhead costs will be reduced and quality of health care will improve. The Mayo Clinic, the Geisinger Clinic in Pennsylvania and the Cleveland Clinic are shining examples of how costs can be contained while the quality of care improves. The plan also calls for a more intense focus on the prevention and management of chronic diseases, which has the real potential to dramatically improve health outcomes.  

From a moral point of view, reforming the broken system and making health care available to everyone is the right thing to do. But it won't be easy or quick. At 17 percent of gross domestic product, health care costs are the biggest sector of the economy and are expected to grow to 25 percent by 2025. Turning such a massive ship will take time and real leadership.

But beginning the process is absolutely vital to restoring our overall economic health and well-being. Workers who lack health insurance or have limited access to health care due to cost simply go without, relying instead on taxpayer-funded emergency room treatment for illnesses. It doesn't take a genius to know that those in poor health or with chronic diseases, who simply do without proper medical attention due to cost and accessibility, are more likely to miss work and be less productive on the job than their healthier counterparts.

As business leaders, we must take active ownership of the reform process to ensure that accessible health care for all Americans remains a priority without disrupting the profitability of businesses. We have a voice in this new administration, and we can use it to help our new president with fresh ideas, initiatives and concepts to fix the situation before it's too late.

Dr. Scott Ransom is president and professor in obstetrics, gynecology, health management and policy at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth. His column is published in the Fort Worth Business Press the third Monday of each month.

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