A coalition of unlikely bedfellows, including my own association, is making good on its promise to step on the healthcare gas pedal shortly after America selected a new president.

In a Veterans Day full-page ad in USA Today, the National Federation of Independent Business, America’s largest small business association, AARP, Business Roundtable, and Service Employees International Union sent a joint letter to President-elect Barack Obama calling on him to make healthcare reform one of his top priorities in the first 100 days of his administration.

“If you will commit to taking action on this critical issue early in your administration, we will commit to engaging our members by hosting a health care reform summit, working with you to develop a proposal as part of your agenda for the first 100 days and educating our members about the challenges and trade-offs reform entails,” the letter said.

NFIB, AARP, SEIU and the Business Roundtable launched the Divided We Fail campaign to help build consensus and work toward bipartisan solutions to affordable, high-quality healthcare among the small business, big business, labor and consumer communities that each represents.

For a nation that proudly leads in medical advancements and breakthroughs, the everyday healthcare of its citizens is a national scandal. At the epicenter of the crisis are small businesses, those employers of the majority of working Americans and the engine of the economy. For more than two decades NFIB, their leading representative group, has been polling its members on the top issues of concern to them, and healthcare has always been No. 1.

Health insurance remains one of the fastest growing and most unpredictable costs small employers face from year to year – for example, small firms have seen premium increases of nearly 130 percent over just eight years. And, while small businesses cover nearly 68 million people, still only about half can afford to even offer insurance. Furthermore, employees in the nation’s smallest firms pay an average of 18 percent more in health insurance premiums for the same benefits than those in the largest firms.

In Congress, everyone agrees there is a healthcare-cost crisis, but the paths diverge when solutions are proposed. Some are committed to increasing coverage through greater expansion of public programs, new taxes, and mandates that tell employers to provide or pay up. Others believe that if you “just leave it to the market,” costs will come down and everyone will suddenly be able to find and afford a plan that addresses his or her healthcare needs. Honestly, neither side is entirely right nor entirely wrong, which means we all have to get together to pursue new and innovative solutions to the healthcare-cost crisis.

The necessity for solutions tailored to the needs of the small business community cannot be overstated. Small businesses have struggled with this problem for years. We believe that in order to do something about coverage, you must do something about cost – the two are not mutually exclusive. If small business is to help with coverage, then Congress must do something about costs. For NFIB, that means transforming today’s healthcare system through a multi-pronged approach that utilizes pooling, market reform, and tax treatment to transform the broken marketplace of today into a system where private insurance is available and is built on quality, value, competition and, most of all, affordability.

Everyone should remember that no law requires employers to provide healthcare; it is a voluntary benefit and tool that is used to attract and retain quality employees. But, when faced with meeting the demands of skyrocketing healthcare costs and remaining in and growing their business, it’s easy to see that small business owners are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Last December, NFIB announced its 10 healthcare principles that would serve as a framework for healthcare reform. These principles are rooted in a free-market system that has made this nation the land of opportunity. They include: universal access, private, affordable, unbiased, competitive, portable, transparent, efficient, evidence-based, and realistic.

In the early 90s, NFIB led the fight against so-called “Hillary Care” because it failed to account for the needs of small business and their employees. This time, we are at the table offering solutions and ideas, because the stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines. As President Reagan said of another challenge, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” On January 20, we look forward to working with President Barack Obama to address one of our nation’s biggest domestic priorities – access to quality affordable healthcare.

For more information on NFIB’s healthcare solutions, I invite you to look at three Web sites, www.NFIB.com/healthcare, www.FixedForAmerica.com, www.DividedWeFail.org.