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Maria, Part Deux, and Health Insurance

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Since my post of January 4 about Maria Leavey’s untimely death, tributes to her have popped up around the Internet. One in particular makes the case even more strongly than I could before that her death may have been preventable — if only she had health insurance. Since health insurance also happens to be rising to the top of the national political agenda right now, it’s as good a time as any to think about how we might think about protecting Americans like Maria from leaving us too soon.

When Maria’s obituary appeared on January 6, any trepidation I had felt about publicly raising Maria’s lack of health insurance went away — it was part of a well-written and touching tribute which captured her essence well. Her lack of insurance was obviously something of which her close confidantes were also aware — not just something she shared because she believed so strongly in the mission of Workplace Fairness. Her close friend and professional colleague, Michael Tomasky, a political writer and former executive editor of American Prospect magazine, summed up my own impression of her so well: “It was clear that she was putting the larger cause and other people’s needs before her needs. That’s not something you run into too often in this town.”

But an even more personal and insightful examination of the import of Maria’s death appeared in Salon just a few days later, written by Joe Conason. (I’m not just saying that because he linked to my prior blog entry about Maria, especially since he referred to this blog as “small…in the progressive blogosphere.” Ironically, Maria was planning to help us change that.) Entitled Maria’s Hope, the article pulls no punches when it says,

She had no health insurance — which meant that the hereditary heart condition that killed her probably went undiagnosed and untreated. That almost certainly killed her, as the lack of regular care prematurely kills thousands of other Americans every year. And while she was acutely aware of how that problem affected her fellow citizens, and worked hard every day to change that injustice, she was unable, like so many who work freelance and in small business, to help herself.

Whether or not her heart condition was undiagnosed, chances are good that it went untreated, as it’s hard to get adequate health care without insurance, especially when, as Conason noted, “[Maria] often worked for free — or got stiffed on her very reasonable bills — while the nonprofit executives and politicos who exploited her talents took down big salaries.”

But some of the progressive legislators Maria helped elect, and the liberal groups she supported, are wielding more power these days, and the idea of health care for the masses is being talked about more than it has been since Bill and Hillary Clinton tried but failed in 1994 to transform the way we look at health care. While it’s too late for Maria, is there hope for those who are not covered at work and can’t afford health care on their own?

Tonight, President Bush is expected to talk about his health care proposal in the State of the Union address, which would create a new tax deduction for those who buy insurance themselves or don’t currently have insurance of $15,000 per family and $7,500 for individuals. For those who currently have a health plan from their employers which costs more than $15,000 per year, they would be required to pay taxes on the amount over $15,000 paid on their behalf. (See Reuters article.) Reaction from the leadership on Capitol Hill was tepid, at best: critics charge the plan will cause employers to drop coverage for those who currently have it. (See Bloomberg article.)

One proposal that is receiving considerable fanfare these days comes from Yale’s Jacob Hacker. It’s called “Health Care for America,” — an ambitious agenda to be sure. How would Hacker, and the groups supporting his efforts such as the Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute, make this a reality?

What Health Care for America would do is simple: every legal resident of the United States who lacks access to Medicare or good workplace coverage would be able to buy into the “Health Care for America Plan,” a new public insurance pool modeled after Medicare. This new program would team up with Medicare to bargain for lower prices and upgrade the quality of care so that every enrollee would have access to either an affordable Medicare-like plan with free choice of providers or to a selection of comprehensive private plans.

At the same time, employers would be asked to either provide coverage as good as this new plan or, failing that, make a relatively modest payroll-based contribution to the Health Care for America Plan to help finance coverage for their workers. At a stroke, then, no one with a direct or family tie to the workforce would remain uninsured. The self-employed could buy into the plan by paying the same payroll-based contribution; those without workplace ties would be able to buy into Health Care for America by paying an income-related premium. The states would be given powerful incentives to enroll any remaining uninsured.

(See EPI Briefing Paper.) Hacker’s plan has some compelling elements, especially for those who are not yet ready for employers to completely abdicate their responsibility to the government to solve America’s health care crisis. Time will tell whether its direct, yet sophisticated logic, will win enough allies along the way to become reality.

Another reason why health care proposals are likely to stay atop the national agenda in the days ahead is the emerging alliances between groups who openly acknowledge that they are “strange bedfellows.” When AARP and Families USA can work in a coalition with the American Medical Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there’s some hope that progress is in sight. See Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured (HCCU). And when Andy Stern of the SEIU can reach common ground with the heads of AARP and the Business Roundtable to agree that “[p]olicymakers must act,” then perhaps the policymakers will act. (See Washington Post article.)

As Michael Tomasky wisely notes, “Her friends Harry Reid and Tom Harkin could do far worse than to keep [Maria’s] story in mind whenever they confront the subject of health care.” (See American Prospect article.) With the State of the Union tonight, and Maria’s memorial service tomorrow, now is a very good time to begin to confront the painful subject that is already on a lot of minds — especially those Maria counted among her friends and colleagues who have the power to bring about change. Let’s get it done, before we have to mourn and wonder “what if?” about anyone else we know and care about.

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What Makes a Job Great?

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If you’ve paid attention to this blog, or the Workplace Fairness website, you know that we often have the job of sharing bad news, or the worst of what goes on in the American workplace. But what does it take to make a place a great one to work? With all of the bad news out there, we might be tempted to settle for just the absence of some of the worst legal violations and unfair practices. But there are some ways that employers can truly distinguish themselves, as acknowledged by some of the leading contests and recognition programs out there.

Around this time every year, Fortune Magazine names its list of 100 Best Companies to Work For (just in time for those starting their post-holiday job searches, perhaps?). The very best company selected, Google, didn’t even exist a decade ago, but has quickly developed a reputation as a great place to work — so much so that they receive 1300 resumes a day. It’s partially the perks: free meals with 150 feet of every desk, swimming spa, and free doctors onsite. And those are just the most noteworthy. But those who work there also say it’s the culture: “Life for Google employees at the Mountain View campus is like college. It feels like the brainiest university imaginable – one in which every kid can afford a sports car (though geeky hybrids are cooler here than hot rods).” (See Life Inside Google.)

It’ s certainly not the 9-5 hours: “Hours are long – typical for Silicon Valley – and it’s not unusual for engineers to be seen in the hallways at 3 a.m. debating some esoteric algorithmic conundrum.” (See Working in the Googleplex.) Google turns on its head the whole idea of work/life balance, in that those who get hired are often selected for their “diverse outside interests,” yet once they come to Google, they find “such a cozy place that it’s sometimes difficult for Google employees to leave the office” — which is precisely the point. (See Life Inside Google.)

A quality that Google and Genentech, the #2 best place to work, share, according to Genentech CEO and Google board member Art Levinson is, “the environment, one where they have an ability to pursue things largely on their own terms.” (See Life Inside Google.) So a sense of control over your own career destiny is certainly important as well. Let’s be honest, too — the stock options which have made many Google employees millionaires several times (or several hundred times) over don’t hurt either. There are some Google employees just waiting to vest, so many that they’re referred to “resting and vesting.” (See The Perks of Being a Googler.)

And having a good boss is important for most workers: a recent Florida State University study shows that nearly two of five bosses don’t keep their word, and more than a fourth of them bad-mouth workers they supervise to co-workers, creating problems for companies such as poor morale, less production and higher turnover. (See Orlando Sentinel article.) As the study author, Wayne Hochwarter, points out, “They say that employees don’t leave their job or company, they leave their boss.” (See FSU News.)

Our friends at Winning Workplaces have already found some of the best bosses out there, in their annual Best Bosses contest. Now they’re at it again, in a quest to honor some of the best small workplaces. Perhaps where you work will never be able to compete with the Googles and Genentech’s of the working world, but on a much smaller scale, you’ve got it pretty good. Then you’ll want to submit your nomination for consideration as one of Winning Workplace’s Top Small Businesses of 2007. You’ll need to hurry, though: the nomination deadline is January 31, 2007.

And in the meantime: if your job isn’t great, or your boss isn’t great — what will it take? Is there a role you can play in making the situation a better one? Or is it time to stop complaining and start looking? Comparing your job to either the best or the worst might be just what it takes.

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Some New Year’s Resolutions — for Maria

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Because it’s the time of year when we all make New Year’s resolutions (at least those who have not already sworn never to do so), I had planned to write this blog entry about some resolutions that will help ensure that 2007 becomes known as the year of the American worker. But then I learned of the untimely death of one of our colleagues, Maria Leavey. She was going to help Workplace Fairness do the best that it could to keep these issues live and well before the American public. So I propose these resolutions in her memory, knowing that we will greatly miss the particular resolve she would have contributed, but also knowing that any success that we achieve is what she would have wanted.

I was originally inspired to do this resolution post by one that I had read from the Huffington Post. If you’re a regular reader, then you know that Arianna Huffington really has a knack for keeping progressives motivated — and intellectually honest. But before I could locate the post that originally inspired me when I read it on New Year’s Day, I saw this post from today: A Quiet American Hero. That’s how I learned Maria was gone, which is probably appropriate, considering how connected she was with the blogging community, and the work she did to bring progressive bloggers together even more closely.

If you don’t know her — and you probably don’t — Maria was the kind of person behind the scenes that makes Washington work (in the most positive way, that is). She knew everyone that had the right values, and could also tell you about those who talked the talk, but weren’t sincerely walking the walk. I met her when she applied to become the Executive Director of Workplace Fairness. She realized just a few minutes into the interview that her talents could best benefit WF in another capacity.

We then spent the rest of the interview talking about what kind of work she could do with us that would benefit our mission — a mission in which she passionately believed. That could have been awkward, but it absolutely wasn’t. The very next day, we engaged her as a consultant, but unlike some consultants that you encounter in the nonprofit world, she wasn’t out to promote herself or make a buck — she simply wanted to help and believed she had some skills and some contacts that would benefit us.

So as I erase the appointment with her for next week from my calendar, and mentally uncheck the several tasks that I knew were going to get done with her capable assistance, I started to think about how she would have wanted us to carry on. I don’t presume to have known her well, but she was one of those people that you could understand and relate to immediately — no artifice, no false modesty, although the modesty she exemplified was misplaced. As my colleagues and I discussed, if we were talking about anyone else, we would think they were a real namedropper. With Maria, however, she really did know and have substantive relationships with powerful people — because she earned their respect through her hard work.

And so I propose these resolutions, based upon the few conversations with her I was privileged to have, and just wish that she were here to help us achieve them, as we had hoped and planned.

1. Adequate healthcare coverage for everyone that doesn’t have it. This was one of the issues about which Maria cared passionately, as it affected her personally. As we attempt to learn the cause of her death, we may never know just how much being one of the millions of Americans without health insurance affected her. But I do know that if we can finally make some real progress this year — and it seems like we might — then maybe we can worry less about all the people we know who don’t get the healthcare they need, and whether the consequences will one day be unthinkable.

2. Improving conditions for disabled workers by strengthening the ADA. Again, from personal experience (a disabled family member), Maria believed passionately in empowering people with disabilities, and we spoke often of how the ADA does not do enough to ensure that disabled workers can work instead of being consigned to the fringes of society. There’s a proposal kicking around called the “ADA Restoration Act,” that would repair many of the weaknesses of the current Americans with Disabilities Act, and I’d like to think that if something like this bill is passed in 2007, Maria would consider it significant progress.

3. Sharing information with immigrant and low-income workers. Maria had planned to help us with our efforts to translate the Workplace Fairness website into Spanish and other languages, and believed strongly in ensuring that all workers have the ability to learn about their rights and protect themselves. Workplace Fairness intends to make that project reality in 2007, and her spirit will live on through that project as well.

If I had not heard about Maria’s death today, this list would probably have contained some more resolutions. Not only was I reeling from learning about her being gone, but it’s going to be harder for us to make as much significant progress without her work. But I know that our success, on these and other issues, is what she would have wanted. And as I celebrate the inauguration of the 110th Congress tonight here in Washington, I know she’s celebrating too — not because some of the political campaigns on which she recently worked were successful, but because we now have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of real people. Like Maria did during her all-too-short lifetime.

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