The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 02, 2010

Union leaders hail passage of health care overhaul

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Union leaders hailed the final passage of the health care overhaul, but AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka warned the fight isn’t over yet.

That’s because Congress spent the week of March 22 wrestling with “fixes” in the legislation, contained in a so-called budget “reconciliation” bill the House approved along with the health care revision law. And supporters must go out again and convince a still-skeptical public – and fellow unionists – that the health care law will help them.

One key fix in reconciliation answers labor’s biggest problem with the health care legislation the House sent to Democratic President Barack Obama by a 219-212 vote on March 21: Delaying the effective date on taxing high-value health insurance plans to 2018. The new date is not in the health care law Obama signed on March 23.

Nevertheless, the House voted and the law’s final passage pleased union leaders.

“This is a momentous step toward comprehensive health care reform,” Trumka said. It will finally put the U.S. “on the road to quality affordable health care for all,” he added. Said Change To Win Chair Anna Burger: “For the child who was denied coverage because she got too sick, too young – tomorrow is a new day for our country.”

Besides the planned labor lobbying, the Obama administration will roll out its forces – notably the 13-million-name e-mail list it sent to the Democratic National Committee – to help explain the legislation to the country. One top AFL-CIO official told PAI on March 21 the Obama legions should have been mobilized a year ago.

“Today there is light at the end of a dark tunnel for so many in our country who have worked hard to support their families, but still cannot afford the health care they deserve,” said Trumka, who worked just off the House floor on March 21 to convince Democrats to vote for the health care bill. One who did not: Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., a former Ironworkers Local 7 leader, because of the tax on health insurance.

“Small businesses, part-time employees, those working two and three jobs to get by and seniors can finally find security in the fact that we will soon have comprehensive health care,” Trumka’s post-victory statement added.

Change To Win leaders also cheered the new law, as did union presidents. CTW members “earned this victory the old-fashioned way: They worked for it,” Burger said in thanking unionists. “It is because of their passion and their steadfast belief in doing what’s right that Congress stood and delivered the change they demanded.”

Communications Workers President Larry Cohen called the law “an important opportunity to repair America’s broken health care system.” He thanked legislators – all of them Democrats – “who stood up to insurance company interests and voted yes, for real reform.” And he called the health care revision law “a good start.”

Cohen pointed out the legislation “includes some penalties for employers who for too long refused to pay their fair share (of health care) and reassures workers their families won’t lose health care if they change jobs or are laid off. It stops the worst abuses of insurance companies, like denying care based on pre-existing conditions, setting lifetime limits for coverage and dropping coverage when people need it most.

“After decades of working for quality health care for all, this bill moves us forward and provides a framework for future improvements,” Cohen concluded.

AFSCME President Gerald McEntee and his union’s legislative rep, Chuck Loveless, were even happier. The “historic vote marks a major milestone in the struggle to break the power of the insurance industry and provide quality, affordable health care for millions of American families,” McEntee said.

But unions also realized some vulnerable Democrats went out on a limb to vote for health care revision. AFSCME and the Service Employees started running ads supporting those lawmakers in their districts, touting the law’s benefits. “We’re going to let our friends know we’ll be there for them,” McEntee said.

The ads echo details Loveless emphasized: “No longer will insurance companies be able to undermine your health care coverage. No more denials due to pre-existing conditions or dropped coverage for people who get sick…No longer will people go bankrupt because of illness and no hidden ceiling on your coverage.”

Teamsters President James Hoffa agreed with Burger’s praise of union members as key. “This is a victory for grassroots politics that honors the dignity and well being of all Americans above the profits of our powerful insurance companies,” Hoffa said.

“Congress stood up for the people,” added Service Employees President Andrew Stern. “Six years ago, 20,000 SEIU nurses, doctors, patients and advocates marched across the Golden Gate Bridge calling for fundamental reform to our national healthcare system. Today, that long march ended with an historic victory. We said a great nation can no longer accept a failed system that left too many out in the cold, too many bankrupt, too many dead. For all those who marched…it is a new day.

Trumka estimated unionists made 4 million phone calls on the issue in the last year, while their leaders paid 10,000 individual visits to lawmakers.