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Andy Stern: Health-Care Champion

After his daughter's death, the SEIU president has been behind the formation of several advocacy groups seeking U.S. health-care reform

May, 2002. Andy Stern had hardly slept for days. He clutched 13-year-old daughter Cassie in his arms. With each weak breath, he felt his daughter slipping away. She had scoliosis, curvature of the spine. Like her father, the feisty president of the Service Employees International Union, Cassie had persevered, a fighter for desired outcomes. But surgery had not gone well.

He was still holding Cassie when her body stilled. Other interests quickly faded into an abyss. Then, one day, something within him shifted. He made a vow, in Cassie's name, "to fight with that much more determination for the things that really matter in life."

Stern told friends that a true leader must have the guts to alienate allies and find common ground with adversaries. First, he convinced six unions to part ways with the AFL-CIO. Then came the issue that touched him personally, that loomed large in every union contract, and that led directly from the hospital room where Cassie had died: reforming the American health-care system.

Roundtable Discussion

Over the past five years, Stern has been one of the driving forces behind a number of efforts to change medical care in the U.S. Perhaps the most ambitious came when he joined secret talks with Charles (Chip) Kahn III, creator of the "Harry and Louise" TV commercials that helped torpedo President Bill Clinton's proposed 1993 health-care policy overhaul, and Ronald Pollack, executive director of the liberal health-care advocacy group Families USA, to come up with a consensus plan. In all, 18 divergent groups took part, including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, insurance providers, the American Medical Assn., the American Hospital Assn., Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), and AARP.

Though they had not yet heard of Safeway (SWY) Chief Executive Steve Burd, these backroom participants realized the pressures for accessible and affordable health care had grown across a wide swath of ideological terrain. Still, the differences of opinion on the proper solutions were vast. As the months went by, NAM expressed concerns about heavy government involvement in health care, while Stern felt the talks weren't going out.

By April, 2006, both NAM and Stern pulled out. "The idea that we're going to trust the government that gave us the post office, the TSA [Transportation Security Administration], and the IRS is just not likely," says NAM President John Engler, former governor of Michigan.

Transcending Politics

Nevertheless, the other members proceeded, and on Jan. 18, 2007, the Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured was unveiled. Its 16 remaining members are pushing for incremental steps toward universal health insurance, beginning this year with coverage for all children. "We're in a total new world," says Families USA's Pollack. "We are going to try to achieve a consensus that transcends ideology and politics."

Stern certainly didn't stop his personal crusade for health-care reform with the one effort. He has gone on to help form two alliances between business and labor groups. One, announced Jan. 16, 2007, is called Divided We Fail and included the SEIU, AARP, and the Business Roundtable. An even more unlikely group is called Better Health Care Together. It includes AT&T (T) and the union it frequently tangles with, the Communications Workers of America. It also includes the SEIU and Wal-Mart (WMT), long known for its hostile attitude toward health care.

While Stern took heat from some union groups for standing with Wal-Mart Chief Executive Lee Scott at one of the group's events, he doesn't have much patience for such sniping. He's determined to keep fighting on for the things that he feels really matter in life.

Richard S. Dunham is a senior writer for BusinessWeek. Epstein is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau.

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