Cassidy: Health care reform movement reaches tipping point

by Lesley Politi on April 2, 2009


I’m starting to believe that, just maybe, a year or two from now, we will have a health care system that looks dramatically different from what we have today.

It won’t be the system that I would have designed. It won’t be the plan you would have designed, either. In fact, there will be something in it for everyone to dislike. But it will be better than what we have now.

The source of my optimism? Anytime you have the Business Roundtable and the Service Employees International Union joining together to demand a health care overhaul (, you know the context of the debate has shifted dramatically. You know it’s a new day anytime you have the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce saying: “We’re going to play in this deal. We’re going to get some kind of agreement here, whether it’s two-thirds of what everybody wants or three-quarters of what everybody wants or who knows?”

In short, when big business gets in the game and is willing to take less than it wants, you know you have a chance. The momentum for competing interests to come together has been building for years, and finally we’ve reached a tipping point.

“Employers have no tolerance now,” says Emily Lam, director of health care and federal issues for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. “I’ve been in health care for my entire career, and I think all of us know this is the best opportunity that we’ve seen in a long time, if not ever, to get this stuff

Skyrocketing medical costs are not only crushing families, they are killing businesses. When providing health care coverage for workers was an incidental expense, companies were willing to consider health benefits as the cost of attracting a high-quality work force. And when workers rarely reached into their own pockets for medical care, there was no reason for them to push for change.

Those days are long over.

When President Barack Obama called together the various interests in the health care debate earlier this month, he correctly called soaring health care costs “one of the greatest threats, not just to the well-being of our families and the prosperity of our businesses, but to the very foundation of our economy.”

Today about 46 million Americans go without health insurance. As more and more workers lose their jobs and their health insurance, many more are faced with the agonizing choice of going without or going broke. Even those with employer-supplemented insurance are paying more for less coverage.

And, Lam says, many Silicon Valley companies are telling her that after wages, health benefits are their biggest cost.

Mir Imran, a Menlo Park medical device innovator who has started more than 20 companies and serves on a dozen boards, says the cost of providing employee health coverage has tripled since 1990. That money is money Imran can’t use to hire more workers or invest in more research and development.

“It is crippling,” says Imran, founder of InCube Labs. “Those savings don’t go in our pockets. We can do more with that money.”

Imran says he has to provide high-quality health insurance because he is competing for talent with every other Silicon Valley company, from the smallest startup to the largest Fortune 500 concern.

“When I interview people,” Imran says, “the first question they ask is, “What’s your health care package?’ ”

The good news is that virtually all the big players agree that the time has come for a new health care system. The cost of doing nothing is too high. The big question is: What will it look like?

I’ll explore that in a future column.


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