ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This week, some of the biggest business lobbies weighed in on the health care debate. Business groups tend to oppose the kind of plan being championed by most Democrats, but as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports the opposition this time around is by no means monolithic.
JIM ZARROLI: Few issues are as important to U.S. businesses right now as the skyrocketing cost of health care. The cost of insuring employees has been rising on average 10 to 12 percent a year for a decade, says Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. BRUCE JOSTEN (U.S. Chamber of Commerce): The business community has been calling for health care reform for many years in a row now. We are desperate to get health care reform. We think it is absolutely essential and necessary.
ZARROLI: Josten's organization has a long wish list of things it wants to see the government do to control health care costs, like wellness programs for employees and requiring all workers to participate in insurance programs. But the chamber has also come down squarely against some key provisions in the bills being championed by Democrats. The chamber doesn't want the government to require employers to insure their workers. It also opposes a public insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.
Mr. JOSTEN: We object to the concept of a government run public plan, because it will operate on an uneven playing field. It will have an unfair advantage over private plans.
ZARROLI: Business groups complain that a public plan would have a kind of cost advantage. It could set rates, so it could require doctors and hospitals to accept less for treatment, the way it does with Medicare. They say private insurers couldn't compete, many would exit the market. Soon the government plan would be dominant. With Washington controlling health care decisions, businesses fear they'd have even less leverage over costs. Helen Darling is president of the National Business Group on Health.
Ms. HELEN DARLING (President, National Business Group on Health): Another plan putting another 46 million people into something that's going to shift cost to employers, and that's the way it basically subsidizes itself, that's not and even remotely satisfactory solution.
ZARROLI: In the past, opposition from business groups helped thwart the health care ambitions of Democrats. And business lobbies have already begun funneling money into ads opposing the public health care option. They'll run in five states with moderate senators whose votes are key to getting health care legislation passed. But Paul Fronstin, of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, says among individual businesses, opposition isn't uniform. Many companies are still studying the issues.
Mr. PAUL FRONSTIN (Employee Benefit Research Institute): You don't only take - take a wait and see attitude and they don't rush into decisions when it comes to their workers and the benefits they provide.
ZARROLI: For instance, Wal-Mart says it supports the idea of an employer mandate. John Oliver, a spokesman for the retailer L.L. Bean, says his company hasn't made up its mind, but it's open to the idea. Bean provides health care to all its employees and Oliver says it's expensive.
Mr. JOHN OLIVER (Spokesman, L.L. Bean): So to the extent that the coverage reaches more Americans, it would have a positive affect on the cost burdens that we are carrying.
ZARROLI: Oliver says, the state of Maine, where his company is located, has tried to address health care costs without much success, and so many businesses know keenly that federal help is needed.
Mr. OLIVER: While they care about the details of how federal reform is structured, they are looking to Washington as to address a problem that this state alone cannot resolve.
ZARROLI: Oliver says, his company is also open to a public health care plan depending on how it's designed. That view is limited right now and much of the business lobby remains opposed to the idea. But proponents are hoping that enough high level defections could at least change the tone of the debate.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News.