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July 20, 2004

Group Urges Universal Health Coverage


Filed at 6:45 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rapidly rising costs, soaring numbers of uninsured and an epidemic of poor care have caused a health care crisis that only sweeping reform will solve, an alliance of business, labor, religious and civic groups said Tuesday.

The National Coalition on Health Care said Congress should require that everyone have basic health insurance, with subsidies for those who can't afford it. It also called for holding down premiums for the basic package, simplifying health care administration and reducing medical errors by tying payments to quality, among other things.

``Small changes, incremental changes are not sufficient,'' said coalition president Henry Simmons, a physician who served in three Republican administrations. ``We've had 40 years of failure with experiments with that strategy.''

The coalition did not endorse any specific approach, but said the options could include a single-payer system, mandates on employers to offer insurance and expansion of public programs.

The number of Americans without insurance is projected to top 51 million by 2006, up from 41 million in 2001, the group said. The average annual premium for employer-sponsored coverage for a family will be $14,565 in 2006, more than double what it was in 2001, the coalition said. The figures represent the total paid for the insurance by employer and employee combined.

The proposal follows an Institute of Medicine recommendation, issued in January, that the government provide universal health insurance. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a heart-lung transplant surgeon, called the current system ``unacceptable.''

Middle-class Americans are now feeling the effects of the problems, from steadily increasing premiums to loss of benefits from their employers, giving the topic added political punch, Simmons said. ``The middle class votes,'' said Frist, R-Tenn.

Citing Frist's remarks, former Rep. Paul Rogers, a Florida Democrat and co-chairman of the coalition, said he sees signs the issue is reaching a tipping point, 10 years after President Clinton's health care overhaul stalled in Congress.

``You're hearing people from both political parties saying the current system is unworkable,'' Rogers said.

Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, a Republican, said the crisis is constantly worsening.

``You cannot have increases in premiums of 14 percent when inflation is 2 1/2 percent,'' Ray said. ``You cannot have costs rising four times faster than wages.''

The coalition says it has picked up more than 40 new members in the past 18 months, including Bell South, the energy company Cinergy, General Electric and General Motors.

``When did you last hear some of the largest corporations in America call on government to come in and fix this problem?'' Simmons said.

The coalition on Tuesday brought together a number of prominent Americans, including AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, AARP president Bill Novelli and the leaders of large corporations, pension systems and religious groups.


On the Net:

National Coalition on Health Care:

Jul. 21, 2004. 01:00 AM

Protecting the whistle-blowers
Public must demand an explanation for firing of federal scientists, By Joanna Gualtieri

With Health Canada providing no public reason why it fired three well-known scientists a week ago, it is difficult to challenge its actions head on. But the circumstances surrounding the firing allow us to draw some damning inferences.

Margaret Haydon, Gerard Lambert, and Shiv Chopra have for some time expressed concerns regarding Health Canada's veterinary drug approval process. They claim there's a too-cozy relationship between industry and government, with hasty approvals and a rush to market without proper assessment of public risks.

They are not alone in their concerns.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Michele Brill-Edwards, a highly accomplished physician and drug expert, resigned from Health Canada.

She claimed the government failed to maintain proper independence from the powerful pharmaceuticals and exercise precaution to protect the public interest. Her specific concern was the sketchy evaluation of heart drugs.

Without a job and alone against a powerful bureaucracy, Brill-Edwards was dismayed further to learn not only that her union would not assist her but would, in fact, actively engage in efforts to thwart her courageous efforts to speak out in the public interest.

Ten years later, Brill-Edwards' advice is constantly sought as an expert witness and one who can address corruption in government departments and agencies.

Regarded as a hero for standing strong and speaking "truth to power," few know, however, her personal sacrifices.

She was blacklisted in the Ottawa area and struggled to find employment and attend to her family. Ultimately, work came via an arduous weekly commute to Toronto.

For anyone who doubts the willingness of the Canadian government to punish one who dares to dissent, Brill-Edwards serves as a powerful reminder of the brutal tactics that our federal regime can employ.

As to the three scientists and the firing missive they suddenly received, was Health Canada acting in good faith or is the department following an unspoken agenda

though not unknown


In other words, is it trying to silence anyone who dissents from the party line, which is often founded on kowtowing and sycophancy to industry and big dollars?

With Health Canada saying little and the fact that institutions do not generally confess to their own wrongdoing, we can only look at the facts.

All three scientist have two to three decades of government service. As veterinarians, their scientific evaluations had caused them to publicly dissent on what they believe are risks to public safety, most notably the bovine growth hormone (BST) for dairy cows.

As a result of the ban on BST, Monsanto, the chemical giant, was denied a lucrative market.

Haydon, Lambert, and Chopra have subsequently endured smear campaigns, bogus disciplinary actions, salary penalties, no work or meaningless work, isolation, gag orders, and the withdrawal of necessary work tools, turning their work environment into a living hell.

In the last number of weeks, all sought refuge from the bullies at work and took extended sick leaves. It is during this legally authorized leave that notice of termination arrived on their doorsteps, demonstrating that the once sacrosanct right not to be harassed by one's employer while on sick leave is also under attack.

How could this happen on the heels of an election in which Prime Minister Paul Martin promised that integrity in government would be the foundation of his tenure?

Far from eradicating public cynicism, the timing of this firing only solidifies both public and civil servants' contempt.

It was done after the election, prior to the resumption of Parliament, where the government could have faced an onslaught of questioning, and during the height of the summer, when many senior journalists are on vacation

no better time to insulate Ottawa from broad and sustained scrutiny.

What about Martin's commitment earlier in the year to provide whistle-blower protection for public servants?

A genuine commitment means he must intervene to redress the firings that are either egregiously stupid or sinisterly evil.

Furthermore, Bill C-25, the Public Servants Disclosure Act, introduced in March, 2004, served as a disgraceful, repressive response that did more to control occupational free speech than promote it.

So much for public accountability and freedom of expression as guaranteed in our Charter of Rights.

If Canadians really desire change, their support should be given directly to the whistle-blowers and the grassroots public interest groups that have demonstrated a tireless and principled commitment to instituting change.

Canadians must also demand that their elected officials champion the cause for real and substantial whistle-blower protection by dedicating staff time, research dollars and intervening on behalf of the courageous few who have stepped into the public eye.

The issue goes to the very heart of our democratic rights and our commitment to free speech. It is an issue that will long survive the resolution of the grievances of the three courageous scientists at Health Canada.

What must be demanded by all of us is genuine legal protection for all whistle-blowers — employees who through their individual acts of conscience protect us.

Joanna Gualtieri is the founder of FAIR, a public interest group promoting the rights of whistle-blowers. She is a lawyer on unpaid leave with the Department of Foreign Affairs after speaking out about misuse of taxpayer money.