Md. business leaders back universal care

August 09, 1994|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Sun Staff Writer

Some of Maryland's largest employers gathered yesterday to HTC push for health care reform that will require every business to insure every worker, charging that businesspeople opposed to employer mandates are either misinformed or selfish.

Flanked by business executives and union leaders at a meeting downtown, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin pointed to Johns Hopkins Hospital and Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant, and warned: "Their futures depend on what Congress will be doing" in its debate over health care reform.

Thousands of employers, large and small, have endorsed the kind of fundamental reform he has long supported, the 3rd District Democrat said.

"We can't do this with incremental change. Without universal coverage, the average premium will increase," forcing many people to give up insurance, he said. "More people will be uninsured rather than less," unless Congress requires all employers to cover employees.

"Certain elements are just opposed to employers living up to his or her responsibilities," Mr. Cardin said.

Duane Dunham, president of Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point Division, said the nation's second-biggest steelmaker is pushing for massive and fundamental reforms because that's the only way to reduce costs.

"Halfway measures, such as those that travel under the banner of managed competition, are not enough to deal with a genuine crisis in our health care system," he said.

In Maryland, Bethlehem pays for the health care of about 40,000 workers, families and retirees, at a cost of $60 million a year, he said. More than a quarter of that pays for coverage of workers' family members employed by others and hospital bills inflated to cover care for the uninsured.

Giant Food Inc. wants reform to save it from unfair competition from retailers who don't provide health insurance.

"Companies like Giant Food pay our fair share" by subsidizing health insurance for workers and their families, said Barry Scher, vice president for public relations at the Landover-based chain. With 16,000 employees in Maryland, Giant is the state's largest private employer.

But many of Giant's competitors -- ranging from behemoths such as Wal-Mart to tiny mom-and-pop grocery stores -- don't offer their workers health insurance. And that costs Giant money, he said.

Not only is Giant penalized with higher costs for being a more responsible employer, but it ends up paying some of the costs of competitors who don't insure their workers, Mr. Scher said.

"We don't think anyone should be riding on our coattails and not paying their fair share," he said.

Businesspeople who have spoken out against so-called "employer mandates" have been misled by "scare tactics," Mr. Scher said. "They are misinformed. They haven't looked at the true costs" of failing to pass a health reform bill.

Tom McNutt, president of a United Food and Commercial Workers Union local that represents about 10,000 Marylanders, including many Giant employees, said his members will be donning buttons asking customers to lobby for reform.

Companies that don't provide health insurance are freeloaders, said the head of UFCW Local 400. "They are taking advantage of the system . . . letting somebody else pay for their employees' health care."

Unless reform is passed, two-thirds of all retail workers will be without coverage, Mr. McNutt warned.

Terry Hill, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, an association of small businesses that vigorously opposes employer mandates, said yesterday that his members were not selfish or irresponsible.

"They are trying to say we are freeloaders, but small businesspeople can't afford" to buy health insurance for employees, he said.

Small businesses that don't offer health insurance are not taking unfair competitive advantage of larger companies that do provide insurance, because they have so many other higher costs and disadvantages, Mr. Hill said.

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