General Motors chairman Rick Wagoner has told an automotive conference that whoever wins the United States presidential race must work across party lines to solve the nation’s health care crisis.

According to the Associated Press (AP), Wagoner said that rising health care costs continue to place domestic vehicle makers at a severe disadvantage to their foreign counterparts, who generally have younger employees, fewer retirees and different systems for paying for health care.

GM, Ford and Chrysler paid $US8.5 billion combined in health care costs last year while GM alone spent $4.8 billion on health care for 1.1 million US employees, retirees and dependents, the report said.

“We’ll work with whoever is elected,” Wagoner reportedly said, noting that GM is sponsoring a reception at this week’s Republican National Convention in New York, as it did at the Democratic convention in Boston.

Of the $338,570 that GM’s political action committee has contributed to federal candidates this election cycle, $231,500, or 68.4%, has gone to Republicans, while $107,070, or 31.6%, has been given to Democrats, the Associated Press said, citing, a web site sponsored by the non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics.

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GM spokesman Chris Preuss told AP GM’s political contributions tend to lean toward incumbents and elected officials in areas where GM has operations. He said over the past five years roughly 60% of contributions has gone to Republicans, the rest to Democrats.

Wagoner reportedly said there appears to be a “broad acceptance” among Washington’s political leaders that health care is a big issue, but “I don’t frankly see as strong a consensus on what we can do about it.”

According to the Associated Press, Wagoner balked at commenting specifically on the health care plans of President Bush and Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry. But he reportedly said one remedy he sees for improving health care is more sharing of information by hospitals and doctors on the quality of their service.

“The issue of sharing true quality performance data makes the providers quite nervous,” Wagoner told AP after his presentation. “They say it’s not a fair benchmark. I say well, gee, we compare small cars to large cars. The benchmarks are there. People are smart. We need to share that data.”

The news agency noted that some movement already has been made in that direction. A new Medicare law Bush signed in December contains provisions that allow some doctors to collect bonuses for meeting performance standards and hospitals to earn higher payments by tracking how quickly and how well they treat patients.

Executives at Ford also have spoken out about skyrocketing medical and prescription costs and their drag on profits, the Associated Press said. Ford vice chairman Allan Gilmour, speaking last month at the National Governors Association meeting in Seattle, reportedly called on the body to help establish a “broad-based coalition” to find a solution to the US health care problem.

On the labour side, Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Auto Workers, has said he supports a national, single-payer health care plan that covers every American, AP added.

Wagoner reportedly said much of the discussion in Washington tends to centre around a complete, free-market system on one extreme, and a national health care programme [similar to the UK’s National Health Service] on the other.

“I suspect we’re not going to end up with either one of those solutions,” he told the Associated Press. “So if we could get people working on stuff in the middle … I think there’d be some real improvements made.”