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.June 13, 2005
MASS., MAINE LEADING WAY
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
* 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,’”
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.”