WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Frustrated by the political bickering that has blocked U.S. health care reform for years, a coalition of business and labor groups has joined with an advocacy group for the elderly to try to break the gridlock and achieve success under the next president.

For more than a year, the nearly 40 million-member senior citizens group AARP, the Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and the Service Employees International Union have been dogging candidates on health care.

Their “Divided We Fail” campaign includes television advertisements and dozens of community forums to ensure health care takes center stage in this year’s congressional and presidential elections on Nov. 4.

While other coalitions have organized to seek health care reform, the “Divided We Fail campaign” is unusual because it does not advocate a particular approach. Instead it has put out a set of principles underscoring the need for affordable, quality health care and financial security for all.

“There is no question that the American people, as they look at Washington, are shaking their heads and saying, ‘Why can’t something get done?’ To that extent, health care is high on their list,” said Nancy LeaMond, an AARP executive vice president directing the coalition effort.

Health care spending accounts for about 16 percent of the $14 trillion U.S. economy. With health care taking an ever increasing chunk out of personal, corporate and government budgets, the stakes are high and chances are good that the next president, whether it’s Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, will undertake major health care reform.

So far, 342 of the 535 members in Congress, including Obama and McCain, have signed the Divided We Fail pledge to work across party lines to develop a health care plan or have expressed support for the group’s initiative.

NOT A NEW PROBLEM

The problems with the U.S. health care system have existed for years, if not decades. The United States spends more per person on health care than any other country and yet leaves some 45.7 million Americans without coverage.

But the last all-out effort at a major overhaul, spearheaded in the early 1990s by now-Sen. Hillary Clinton during her husband’s presidency, ended in failure as various interest groups lined up to pick apart the complex plan.

This time it may be different, LeaMond said.

“Many groups were on the sidelines in the ’90s,” she said. “Many groups were saying, ‘Let me just see the final proposal and I’ll decide whether I support it or not.’ They are now in a very different place. They are saying, ‘We’ve got to address these issues, we’ll come to the table,'” she added.

As a result unions, businesses and health industry interests are forming new advocacy groups, joining coalitions and spending millions of dollars to lay the groundwork and ensure their views are heard during the upcoming debate.

The groups include Better Health Care Together, which includes Wal-Mart Stores Inc and other corporate giants along with non-profit policy groups. The group’s goal is a reformed health care system by 2012.

The Coalition to Advance Healthcare Reform joins 60 companies, including national grocery store chains and health care providers, to advance “market-based solutions” to the health care crisis.

Health Care for America Now, a coalition of unions including the 10 million-member AFL-CIO and a number of liberal leaning policy groups, launched a nationwide campaign in July to generate public support for quality affordable health care for everyone.

The group wants to be sure health care reform is a top priority in 2009 for the next president and Congress, said spokeswoman Jacki Schechner.

AARP said its polling shows that independent voters are looking for more details of what the candidates will do once they take office. Obama and McCain have put out health care reform proposals that would take different approaches.

McCain would end tax breaks for employer-provided health insurance and provide a refundable tax credit of $2,500 per person, or $5,000 for families, to help them buy individual policies. Obama proposed allowing individuals and small businesses to buy health care similar to that available to federal employees, supplemented in part by a tax on employers who do not provide coverage.

(Editing by Howard Goller and Philip Barbara)

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