Baltimore Sun

January 10 , 2007

This X-ray brought to you by...

By David Lazarus

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled a sweeping plan this week intended to provide health care for all Californians, but he was a bit fuzzy when it came to meeting the estimated $12 billion price tag for his proposals.

Because funding is the core problem of any attempt to revamp health care and extend coverage to nearly 7 million uninsured state residents, I'd like to offer a modest suggestion. And I'm completely (or mostly) serious.

Corporate sponsorship.

Yes, I'm talking about Johnson & Johnson, say, helping insure about 750,000 uninsured California kids, "because Johnson & Johnson cares."

I'm talking about Bank of America (or Wells Fargo or Charles Schwab) helping fund preventive-care programs that would be "an investment in your future."

I'm talking about X-rays, MRIs and other costly tests being brought to you by Google (or Yahoo or, "delivering the information you need, when you need it."

"It makes perfect sense," said Paul Parkin, a principal at Salt Branding, a San Francisco consulting firm. "It's a natural extension of where the world's going."

He added: "Just as you see signs on the highway saying that a company is cleaning up a certain section, you can easily imagine companies slicing and dicing the health care system for things they'd want associated with their brand."

Treating sick kids is something many businesses would be thrilled to be associated with, Parkin observed. "On the other hand, cancer might be something many companies wouldn't want their brands tied to," he said.

On Monday, Schwarzenegger took the wraps off a plan that would require all state residents to have medical insurance.

"Everyone in California must have health insurance," he said. "If you can't afford it, the state will help you buy it, but you must be insured."

Among other things, Schwarzenegger's plan would require employers with at least 10 workers to provide insurance or pay 4 percent of their payroll into a state fund that would buy insurance for such people.

It would also prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage to anyone because of their age or a pre-existing condition, and would force insurers to spend at least 85 percent of premiums on patient care (as opposed to administrative costs).

One catch, however, is that the governor's plan relies on an infusion of about $5.5 billion in additional federal money, which isn't a sure thing. It also raises a possibility that contributions from employers to a state insurance fund would lag annual increases in health care costs, thus creating a shortfall for lawmakers to deal with.

That's where corporate sponsorship would help. It would supplement tax dollars and accommodate inevitable funding gaps. It would also serve as an extension of companies' brand-awareness campaigns.

Steve Manning, managing director at Igor, a San Francisco brand-consulting firm, said sponsoring health care would be a way for companies to show that they really care about not just customers but all of society.

"It demonstrates that you're doing something positive, as opposed to just making vague allusions," he said. "You'd be doing more, for instance, than those oil companies that say they're 'thinking' about energy."

In November, the Golden Gate Bridge District board approved spending $90,000 for a Novato company called Sponsorship Strategies to come up with ways for the private sector to help close a five-year $89 million deficit.

Kevin Bartram, the head of Sponsorship Strategies, told me he's not envisioning corporate logos or banners hanging from the towers of the bridge. Rather, he foresees a system whereby companies sponsor unique bridge-related programs, such as a facility that outlines the history of the span.

"We're looking at ways companies can be appropriately positioned at the bridge," he said. "There's going to have to be some sort of presence, but we're still looking at how to do it appropriately."

Bartram said the same approach would work with health care.

"With an appropriately designed program, there would definitely be interest in the private sector for sponsoring health care," he said.

Most likely, Bartram said, corporate sponsors would shy away from being linked to individual patients because there's too great a danger of a diagnosis containing bad news.

Therefore, he doesn't foresee people being handed MRI or blood-test results that carry a logo saying "powered by Google." On the other hand, Bartram said, there would be little problem with Google, say, or some other info-tech heavyweight sponsoring a statewide diagnostic system.

"Typically, companies do this kind of thing because they want to be positively positioned in the public's eye," he said. "How a program gets publicized, and how a company gets recognition for it, that's the real trick."

Igor's Manning said the fear many people have of sponsorship for something like the Golden Gate Bridge is that a popular landmark is being taken over by corporate interests.

"If you had the Golden Arches Bridge, that's seen as a corporation taking something away from us," he said.

With sponsorship of health care, however, just the opposite would apply.

"You're not taking anything away from people," Manning observed. "You're giving people something that they don't already have."

What company wouldn't want to be known for that?