UNION NEWS SERVICE
Mark Gruenberg, Editor
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June 13, 2005
CALIF., ILL., MASS., MAINE LEADING WAY
ON STATE UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE
By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (PAI)–Faced with rising health care costs and rising numbers of uninsured residents, many of whom must turn to costly public care, four states–California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maine–are marching towards state-sponsored and state-run universal health care, advocates say.
But at a June 8 Washington briefing on the developments, they appealed for labor support and backing–including from a new group headed by retired UFCW President Douglas Dority–to counter multi-million-dollar disinformation campaigns propounded by universal health care’s Radical Right foes.
The state movements on health care are important, they said, not just because workers, voters and their families face a future of ever-more-costly, ever-less-accessible health care, but because the business-controlled GOP government in Washington appears to be doing nothing about the problem.
What’s happening in the states “can generate the momentum” to prod the federal government to eventually move on the issue, said Mark Blum, executive director of Dority’s group, America’s Agenda: Health Care For All.
The most notable advance is in California. The state senate voted in early June to establish a state-wide universal health insurance system. The vote was on virtual party lines, with Democrats for it. Health care advocates are mobilizing to get it through the assembly and to overcome a potential foe: GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“This says that if you’ve got your feet in the state, you’re covered. No deductibles, no co-pays, no exclusions for immigrants, no b——,” Don Bechler, a now-jobless former United Airlines union worker from San Francisco told the group, at the meeting sponsored by the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees.
“But the big problem we have is the insurance companies. They’re big and evil. They avoid the sick and insure the healthy,” he added. The insurers and their allies used an expensive ad blitz last year to get voters to narrowly overturn a previous health care law in California. It mandated that large firms provide health care, or pay into the state’s Medicaid fund. Wal-Mart helped fund the media campaign against it.
California’s bill (S.B. 840) has also drawn the backing of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. It would combine Medicare, Medicaid, county money and payroll taxes to pay premiums into the state-run system, according to a fact sheet from sponsoring State Sen. Sheila James Kuehl (D).
“It involves no new spending on health care” because those funds “would replace all premiums, deductibles, out-of-pocket payments and co-pays now paid by employers and consumers,” her fact sheet adds.
Overhead spending, which now takes about half of every dollar spent on health insurance, would be eliminated by abolition of the 69 separate government programs and 6,000 insurance plan bureaucracies in the Golden State, a flyer about the bill says.
California’s system would be run by an elected official accountable to voters, and would have the power to bargain with drug companies and hospital equipment firms for bulk purchases at the lowest possible prices.
Spending hikes would be linked to demographics, state gross domestic product, population and employment growth. The state system would specify what the insurance covers and establish cost controls while still letting Californians choose their own doctors. System backers, citing state studies, say it would save $5 billion-$10 billion in the first year alone out of California’s $184 billion health care spending total.
The other three states have different approaches:
* After years of effort, the Campaign for Better Health Care educated both citizens and politicians in Illinois about the problem, Blum said. That led then-State Senate Health Committee Chairman Barack Obama (D-Chicago)–now a U.S. senator–to push through a 3-step plan towards creating a state-run health care system.
The first step, funded by $1.5 million from the legislature, will start in August with state commission hearings in Illinois’ 19 congressional districts. The panel will then use its data to draft proposals for the legislature, and the law mandates that the state’s lawmakers must approve some sort of statewide plan in 2006. It would start in 2007.
“The state Federation of Labor is active with us on this,” Blum said. And to raise awareness of the issue in the Latino community, he added, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson will host an event in Illinois soon. He also noted the plan is drawing positive attention from some Illinois businesses, which face “an insupportable burden” in paying for their workers’ health insurance.
* Maine passed “a cautious universal health care plan” four years ago, Blum added. It established a public-private partnership to provide health insurance for each resident, but it has not been fully implemented. It features a sliding scale of premiums for both employers and workers, with employers paying 60 percent of each total.
But the Maine plan faces difficulties. The governor negotiated voluntary cost containment with the state hospital association at the outset, “but they’ve since bolted and become a major foe” of state-run health care, Blum said. Other costs were to be financed by a fee on providers, paid for by savings from lower amounts of “free” or uncompensated care for the poor. That fee has yet to start.
“The Radical Right–Grover Norquist, the Americans for Tax Reform, the National Taxpayers Union–have opened Maine subsidiaries” using millions from lobbies and right wingers in Washington, D.C., to try to kill the fee “by attacking it as ‘yet another tax,’” Blum said.
To counter the Right Wing rhetoric, the Maine advocates, aided by Dority’s group, created its own mass media campaign and is targeting the same residents that the Radical Right is pitching, notably on Christian radio. Advocates now run commer-cials beginning “I’m a Christian, too,” and talking about health care as a moral value.
* In Massachusetts, said Barbara Roop of the Health Care for Massachusetts Campaign, a coalition of labor, community groups, activists and pastors is crusading for a constitutional amendment to order the legislature to ensure universal health care.
They’re advocating it, she said, because a previous state health care system, pushed through by former Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), was dismantled by his successor, GOP Gov. William Weld, after the state and the nation hit a recession.
Pushing an amendment–which needs votes from successive sessions of the state legislature followed by voters’ approval–also avoids the thorny issue of what type of universal health care to create, Roop said. “Put a specific plan on the table, and the best you can get is only 40 percent of the vote. So we decided to put universal, affordable access in the constitution, instead,” she added.
“The constitutional language will create an enforceable legal tool and provide political ‘cover’ for state legislators,” when they craft a state-run health care plan and decide who should pay for it and how, Roop said.
But all efforts need labor’s support and organizing, Bechler pointed out. “Last year, the L.A. Fed used its phone banks to call Nevadans, for Kerry–and not call Californians for Prop 72,” which repealed California’s prior health care law. “That has to change.”