Checking In With James Gelfand, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
By Jenny Gold
Kaiser Health News
July 1, 2009
The Chamber of Commerce is not mincing words. The senior manager of health policy for the Chamber, James P. Gelfand, says: “The problem is instead of focusing on the 90% of issues that everyone can agree on, we’re getting stuck on the 10% ideological, uncompromisable, unworkable provisions… like creating a government-run insurance plan, forcing employers to provide health insurance. That’s the kind of stuff that reads like a poison pill.”
Q: In congressional testimony, the Chamber’s senior vice president Randel Johnson said the [employer mandate] pay-or-play proposal “holds a Sword of Damocles over the necks of America’s job creators.” Do you believe it represents that kind of threat?
A: You [have to] pare this down to the simplest form — what does this employer mandate do? It makes people who don’t make a lot of money worth less to their employers. Say to yourself, I want to hire someone. I want them to do a simple task. It’s probably worth about $7 an hour. And then you realize, oh wait, because of a new law, I’m going to have to provide gold-plated health insurance. So instead of $7 an hour, it’s going to be more like $20 an hour. Let me tell you something, that person is not getting a job. So we’re just trying to make Congress understand this is a bad, bad policy. It’s gonna hurt the people they want to help.
Q: Many people say the plans on the table right now help lower income people the most. Why does the employer mandate hurt those people who are unable to get insurance?
A: Let’s look at the plan as a whole and what it’s going to do for people who don’t make a whole lot of money. If they’re lucky enough to keep their jobs, which many of them will not be — in fact, a model developed by the president’s own chair of the Council of Economic Advisers found that 4.7 million jobs would be lost based on this employer mandate — well, their benefits are going to be taxed. We’re going to tax them when they buy Coca-Cola. We’re gonna tax them when they buy alcohol. We’re going to force them, if they have a small health plan that they can afford and that appeals to them, to buy a big, rich, expensive health plan. Yeah, I think they’re getting the shaft here.
Q: So far, advertising on health care has been fairly restrained. At what point is it time to ramp up opposition? And what might it look like?
A: You don’t start a battle with nuclear weapons. First thing we’re going to do is try to work inside the system, try to work especially with Sen. Baucus to fix this thing. We don’t want to launch nukes. We don’t want to have a war. We want to support legislation. What will happen at the end of the day? Will Charlie Rangel work with us? I don’t know. I can tell you that at the hearing, he specifically, clearly said, we need the Chamber to get this done. He’s right. And I think as Congress slowly comes to the realization, oh wait, we can’t jam this down America’s throat, we can’t roll employers, we can’t roll the U.S. Chamber, I think the process is going to improve, and hopefully we won’t have to do any of these war tactics of buying air time and stuff like that. Just keep in mind, though, that we could if we had to. We have a massive grassroots network. We put out one e-mail asking people to write letters to Congress about the employer mandate and about the public plan, and we generate somewhere around 50,000 letters to Congress. So I think Congress is realizing that it’s gonna be trouble if they try to roll us.
We really do need reform, and I’m sorry that things have gotten to the point where we’re having to beat up on members of Congress who are proposing wacky schemes instead of pragmatic legislation.
Wal-Mart, SEIU, CAP letter to President Obama:
“So I think Congress is realizing that it’s gonna be trouble if they try to roll us,” and “I’m sorry that things have gotten to the point where we’re having to beat up on members of Congress.” Was this guy nurtured on “The Sopranos,” or is he the real thing?
Regardless, are the owners of America’s businesses really as heartless as this jerk implies? Do they really believe that their workers would be “getting the shaft” by having health insurance with adequate benefits?
Even Wal-Mart can’t stomach this anymore. In a letter to President Obama yesterday, they stated, “We are for shared responsibility. Not every business can make the same contribution, but everyone must make some contribution. We are for an employer mandate which is fair and broad in its coverage, but any alternative to an employer mandate should not create barriers to hiring entry level employees. We look forward to working with the Administration and Congress to develop a requirement that is both sensible and equitable.”
Employer-mandated insurance is a primitive, inefficient and inequitable method of financing health care. Maybe Wal-Mart and the other business interests are ready to consider a model that is fair for all, efficient, and really does ensure that everyone has affordable access to health care. And if they walk away from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they will find advocates that can show them that they don’t even have to break any kneecaps to achieve that.