Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Labor's Stake In Health Policy

by Phil E. Benjamin

While Congress is deliberating on the future of national health care, the labor movement has been organizing and lobbying on many levels.

The first is to keep track and influence Congressional national health activity. Labor's below the radar wishes were expressed in a paper prepared originally for the Economic Policy Institute by Professor Jacob Hacker which proposed that there should be two national health tracks: One, you can keep what you got if you like it; and, two, everyone else would be covered by Medicare. His latest paper, well respected in the labor and progressive movements is worth reading: "The Cast for Public Plan Choice in National Health Reform: Key to Cost Control and Quality Coverage." [Institute for America's Future and Berkeley Law, Univ. of Ca.]

A recent speech by AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney describes labor's approach, "Curbing High Health Costs: the Linchpin for Successful Health Reform, " National Academy of Social Insurance. This is a good tandim to understand labor's position on health policy.

The first part, keeping what you got if you like it, was endorsed by President Obama's campaign promise. The second has morphed into the "Public Option" debate. Medicare is the highest form of a "Public Option." Of course, making Medicare a fully public program, i.e., eliminating the Medicare Advantage insurance companies would be a top priority. President Obama said that eliminating those companies would save $15 billion a year.

Making Medicare Part D, the drug program, a fully government program as in the Veterans Administration and Medicaid would save billions. That is also on the agenda.

The second aspect that Labor must pay attention to is to not allow the TAXING OF HEALTH BENEFITS as a way of financing any health proposal. This has been a wish of the Republican Party since the Reagan years. Now, even some Democrats like Ron Wyden of Oregon, are embracing it.

Stopping the TAXING of BENEFITS is paramount demand.


At the same time that there is action in Washington, D.C., each and every local and international union must protect its health benefits in every contract negotiations. Auto negotiations highlighted this major struggle point, but this employer effort to using the economic crisis to cutback all health benefits is pandemic throughout the labor movement.

Thus the labor movement, while being leaders in Congress for a progressive national health program, must fulfill its obligations to its members and members' families in protecting and improving their negotiated health benefits.

There will NO progressive national health legislation with labor; and, labor must protect its members at the same time. This must be understood by all labor and progressive activists.

[Note: Keep in mind, that negotiated health benefits are often linked to worker pension negotiations at contract time. And, on the national level, the right wing would love to link the Taxing of Health Benefits to their other goal, the privatization of Social Security.]