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EDITORIAL: Health reform's time has come

June 29, 2009

After decades of talk about health care reform, the country seems poised to take a major step in that direction. Various bills are being filed in Congress, and President Obama has said he wants legislation on his desk by November.

The momentum that's building is driven not just by the president but by the growing number of uninsured Americans and by businesses across the land that can barely afford to continue offering a plan or have stopped altogether because of the expense.

IBJ reporter J.K. Wall has been in touch with business owners and with key local players in the debate over the last few weeks to discuss with them their health-reform hopes and fears, particularly the prospect of a government-run health insurance plan. As he reported in a front-page story last week, some small employers would welcome the option of an affordable, government-run plan. Many others are worried about government involvement. And some of the largest are bracing for what is shaping up to be a game-changing debate. Eli Lilly and Co., for example, has hired former Mayor Bart Peterson to make sure its concerns are heard in Washington.

It's premature to oppose a government-run plan outright, but there are some principles that shouldn't be compromised in whatever plan lawmakers send to the president. Among them:

• A reformed system must become a more streamlined system. President Obama has made transparency that consumers can understand a priority in the financial services sector. Consumers of health care should expect no less.

• Timely access to health care can't be compromised. One of the problems with the existing system is lack of access for a growing number of Americans, but a plan that diminishes access for others isn't acceptable.

• The burden of paying for a new plan can't fall on businesses to such an extent that jobs and economic growth are hurt.

• There must remain a financial incentive for private-sector firms to discover and bring to market health care products that enhance quality of life and save lives.

We're skeptical the government can produce a plan that meets those conditions. But it's also clear that the country's health care system needs an overhaul. Private sector initiatives have only nibbled at the edges of what needs to be done. Now, it's the government's turn, but business must have a strong voice in whatever emerges.

Baby steps toward healthier air

We've long advocated an expansion of the city's smokefree workplace ordinance to include all places of employment. A statewide ban would be even better.

But lacking action at either level of government, we're glad to see some bars taking matters into their own hands. As Kathleen McLaughlin reports in a front-page story this week, bar owners here are implementing their own outright bans or are designating certain times of the day when patrons can't smoke.

We applaud those steps, but business owners shouldn't have to risk driving away some of their customers to protect public health. Where matters of public safety are concerned, the government has an obligation to intervene.•

To comment on these editorials, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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