Considering Canada's edge

Bennington (Vt.) Banner, March 18, 2011

Part of the blame for the demise of Bennington Iron Works, which announced this week it will close by May after 43 years, was that it faced "relentless" competition from Canadian firms in the manufacture of steel products for construction and other uses.

One comment heard estimated that those firms were selling steel products at a hefty percentage less than BIW could manage. If that is true, we can think of one major cost of doing business that those Canadian firms are not paying -- employee health insurance. Of course, the reason is that unlike the United States, most industrialized nations have a health care system that is mostly or wholly funded by the government.

For all their grousing about taxes and environmental and other regulations, pro-business conservatives rarely complain about the huge cost of our health care system -- the world's most expensive -- and the fact it is still dominated by private, for-profit insurance firms. And when a single-payer, Medicare-style system is proposed, they rail against that -- contending it would be more costly.

But what is the cost of doing business for U.S. firms competing in ruthless global markets, in which foreign companies either have few or no obligations toward employee insurance and/or their workers are paid far less than the average American? Single-payer systems are designed and operated by governments, made up of human beings, and therefore they are not perfect. But in better controlling health care and drug costs, reducing paperwork and keeping profit margins of any private entities within the sanity range, they are far superior.

And they provide a boost to economic development here by dramatically lowering the cost of doing business.

Coincidentally, the Vermont Legislature is now considering a single-payer health care insurance system that would be the nation's first to cover every resident of a state. It has the strong backing of Governor Peter Shumlin, and initial legislation has emerged from the House Health Care Committee with a favorable vote.

While funding for the system and other details aren't likely to be decided in the near future, the changeover could be set in motion during this session. Business interest groups and lobbyists, which have generally opposed single-payer systems, should think again about the high and rising costs businesses must shoulder versus the option of a tax-based system that spreads those costs and is better able to reduce insurance overhead and the cost of care.

It is unclear today how a Vermont single-payer system would be put together, but if it is an option citizens or companies could choose in place of competing private insurance firms, we think it could not fail to improve upon to what we have today. We think even those now skeptical would come around in short order, especially those firms competing with Canada and beyond.