General Motors intends to be a vocal player in election-year debates about health care policy, says Gary Cowger, GM North America president.
"We need a serious dialogue on this issue between the public and private sector," Cowger said in a speech to the J.D. Power and Associates International Automotive Roundtable. "Those discussions need to start now, and the dialogue needs to be a part of the national agenda during this presidential election year."
Asked if the emphasis on health care in his speech signaled the start of a broader GM public-policy effort, Cowger replied: "You'll probably hear us talk about health care a lot this year."
Noting that a massive bond sale last summer and the sale of Hughes Electronics has eliminated GM's pension deficit until 2010, he said health care inflation is GM's biggest external problem.
Cowger said GM spends $4.5 billion annually on employee and retiree health care, which equates to $1,200 per vehicle. That is more than GM spends on steel, he said.
The cost of health care rises 14 percent to 18 percent a year nationally, although GM limited its increases to 8.6 percent in 2002.
Recent Medicare reform legislation was "just one small part of a much-needed overhaul of the nation's health care system," he said. "The Medicare reform bill will barely cover the inflation for prescription drugs."
Cowger said GM's health care costs put it at a competitive disadvantage with foreign competitors. Those companies have younger workers in the United States and few retirees, he said. And many have some form of national health care system in their home countries.
But Cowger said a government-run health care system is "a bridge too far."