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East Bay Health Care Workers Strike Forces County to Disband the Boss

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On day two of their five-day strike, Alameda Health System workers in California’s East Bay won a landmark victory. After years of stalling, the elected Board of Supervisors of Alameda County suddenly announced they would disband the unelected Board of Trustees that has long mismanaged this public safety-net health care system.

In 1998, Alameda County supervisors decided to hand off administration of the county health care system to an unelected board, with an aim to cut spending. While the system remained public, it ceased to be directly funded by the county or under its jurisdiction; instead the county loaned AHS money and forced it to pay back any debts. This was part of a wave of privatization and outsourcing of public services across the county and the country.

The Board of Trustees soon turned to union-busting and dangerous cuts to care and staffing. According to health care workers, the COVID-19 pandemic made a bad situation into a nightmare, as AHS management responded to the pandemic by denying workers adequate PPE or training, laying off essential staff, and retaliating against workers who spoke up.

Yet even a month ago, Alameda County supervisors were unwilling to take AHS back under their direct control. Current County Supervisor Wilma Chan was also on the board in 1998, and voted then to give up democratic control of the health system. Chan, who chairs the Board of Supervisors’ health committee, until yesterday had been a skilled opponent of the county resuming responsibility. What forced the politicians to act was a strike with deep rank-and-file participation.

“When you have over 3,000 employees in a health care system, marching out and saying something is wrong, somebody has to listen to that,” said Sheleka Carter, a community health outreach worker and AHS chapter secretary in Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1021. “How can you ignore it?”

TURNING POINT

The strike has forced politicians to take responsibility for the system, but the move is only the start of a fight to determine how AHS will be run. Details of how county government will manage the system and handle AHS debts to the county have yet to be hammered out. Nonetheless, for East Bay health care workers and patients, this victory marks a turning point.

“The privatization is stopped,” said Carter. “It brings the system to a place where now the community has a say in how they get care and how the system is run. Employees have a voice about the changes that need to be made.”

In a rally Thursday at county headquarters, workers made clear they plan to strike until they win a fair contract for patients and workers alike.

“If it takes five strikes, we will strike five times,” said Mawata Kamara, an emergency nurse at San Leandro Hospital and member of the California Nurses Association, whose members are also on strike at San Leandro and Alameda Hospitals. “We are ready!”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Keith Brower Brown is a graduate student instructor and member of United Auto Workers Local 2865 at the University of California, Berkeley.


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Hospital Workers Fight Job Cuts at Duluth’s Biggest Employer

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Our health care employer announced hundreds of unnecessary layoffs this spring. Outraged at its poorly disguised greed, we didn’t just rely on negotiations. Instead, the members of our union voted unanimously to take the fight to the streets and into the community. We spent the summer fighting back—including holding our local’s first-ever pickets.

Essentia Health is far and away the largest employer in Duluth, Minnesota. Its sprawling main campus is a neighborhood unto itself, and its clinics and other facilities spread out across the region into almost every community of more than a few thousand people. Its very well-paid CEO and other top executives have overseen year after year of dramatic expansion; now they’re building a new state-of-the-art $900 million hospital. Business has certainly been good for Essentia Health.

But much of Essentia’s growth has come at the expense of its workers. For years we have been made to take on more and more work, while vacancies are left unfilled. This is sadly a common trend throughout health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has only thrown more fuel on the fire.

SMOKE AND SPIN

This spring, despite receiving $112 million from the government, Essentia announced its intentions to permanently eliminate 900 jobs. Its PR statements talked about how this was necessary because of the hard times that the pandemic was causing the company, and said that even the top executives and physicians would be taking pay cuts.

But it was all smoke and spin. The reality is that Essentia wasn’t even in the red; in fact, it took in more revenue this year than last year. At the same time as the chain was eliminating jobs, it was spending tens of millions of dollars to buy out a hospital in Moose Lake, Minnesota, and continuing full speed ahead with the construction of a new hospital in Duluth.

The top brass of Essentia cut their salaries—but we’re skeptical how long that will last. In the meantime, we’re sure they won’t have trouble getting by after receiving exorbitant sums like the $1.5 million in compensation paid to CEO David Herman in 2019.

FIRST PICKET EVER

United Steelworkers Local 9460 is the largest union at Essentia. Members voted unanimously to launch a fightback campaign across the chain across our 11 units in the chain.

Our campaign kicked off on June 1, with a car caravan protest and informational picket at Essentia’s main campus in Duluth. Several dozen cars and trucks filled with union members and supporters waved their way through Duluth’s streets and drove around the Essentia Health campus for hours, honking the whole time. At the same time dozens of workers held signs and gave our leaflets at all of the intersections around their campus.

The response from the community was overwhelming. Numerous motorists spontaneously joined the caravan, and almost every pedestrian we encountered indicated support—some even joined the informational picket. A number of other unions participated, including the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Minnesota Nurses Association, and the Service Employees (SEIU), as well as miners from the nearby Iron Range who are also part of the Steelworkers. The impressive pickets and union solidarity that had been built around MNA’s 2019 contract fight at Essentia helped lay the groundwork for our campaign.

This was the first picket of our own that Local 9460 had ever organized in our 20-year history, and it created a buzz in the community, the local labor movement, and the media. Next we mounted an aggressive information campaign, distributing hundreds of “No Layoffs at Essentia!” yard signs and posters throughout the communities where Essentia Health has facilities, and putting up billboards in Duluth, Ashland, Hayward, Spooner, and the Iron Range. The message of the billboards was “Essentia Health: Putting Wealth Before Health Like Nowhere Else”—a pointed mocking of Essentia’s official advertising slogan, which is “Like Nowhere Else!”

The yard signs, posters, and billboards generated a new wave of media coverage—and legal threats from Essentia. But the union refused to back down, and in the end the billboards stayed up and were seen by hundreds of thousands.

‘BRING OUR JOBS BACK!’

As the summer went on, we held more actions, including an informational picket in downtown Spooner, Wisconsin, where our members work at an Essentia outpatient clinic. We promoted the pickets with full-page ads in the local newspapers and a series of guest editorials.

In the face of this resistance, Essentia unfortunately did forge ahead with its layoffs. They started with non-union workers and managers, before moving on to the different worksites where Local 9460 represents almost 2,000 Essentia workers.

By the time the layoffs ended this fall, our union had lost about 300 members. This was considerably less than had been expected, but it still represented a huge loss. The cuts ranged from clinical assistants to janitors. Few job categories were spared.

Essentia, of course, will never admit that the fightback campaign reduced the number of union members laid off, but we are confident that it did. And we’re even more confident that it will cause the company to think twice from here on out, now that management has seen that our union can and will fight back.

The battle is far from over. We still have members without jobs, and those who are working are doing so woefully short-staffed. Local 9460 is preparing to enter contract negotiations with Essentia, and to launch a new community campaign around the theme, “Bring Our Jobs Back!” The struggle continues.

This article originally appeared at Labor Notes on September 28, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adam Ritscher is vice president of United Steelworkers Local 9460.


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How America Continues to Fail the Health Care Workers Battling the Pandemic

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American Red Cross workers travel from one community to another conducting the blood drives that save countless lives in emergency departments and operating rooms.

But they struggle to perform that vital work while keeping themselves safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many health care employers, the Red Cross fails to consistently follow social distancing and other coronavirus safety guidelines.

“Safety shouldn’t be only if it’s feasible,” observed United Steelworkers (USW) Local 254 President Darryl Ford, who represents hundreds of Red Cross workers in Georgia and Alabama. “It should be all the time.”

Eight months after COVID-19 hit America, the nation continues to fail the thousands of health care workers who put their lives on the line each day to help others survive the pandemic.

They still face chronic shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) because the U.S. never fixed the broken supply chains that resulted in highly publicized scarcities of face masks, respirators and other crucial equipment last winter. Some employers refuse to take even common-sense measures to keep workers safe.

The Red Cross failed to provide face shields to protect Ford and his colleagues from blood spatter. And when a company that made the devices offered them for free, the Red Cross declined because of what it deemed the low quality.

“If it’s snowing outside and you don’t have a coat to give me, but you do have a sweater, give me the damn sweater,” fumed Ford, noting his members prefer some protection to none.

Employers’ shortsighted practices not only pose lethal risks to health care workers but ultimately will endanger the patients they serve, especially if a second wave of the virus strikes this winter.

Hospitals, nursing homes and other employers, for example, regularly work health care professionals to the bone despite the danger that understaffing poses both to workers and patients.

Across the country, tens of thousands of patients and workers died after contracting COVID-19 in nursing homes. And although employers had months to fill vacancies and resolve other problems affecting care during the pandemic, workers in these virus hotspots still face severe staffing shortages, lack of PPE or both.

“It’s challenging and it’s stressful,” explained Lynair Gardner, unit griever for USW Local 7898, which represents certified nursing assistants (CNAs), dietary and environmental services workers and other staff members at Prince George Healthcare Center in Georgetown, South Carolina. “But you’re there for people who can’t help themselves. Sometimes, you have to put that compassion first.”

CNAs at the facility took on extra responsibilities when the pandemic hit, such as distributing linens and cleaning up after meals to reduce residents’ contact with environmental services and dietary staff members.

Sometimes, Gardner said, she and her colleagues maintain such a grueling pace that they work through their scheduled breaks without even realizing it.

Instead of recognizing their sacrifices, however, the nursing home insists they work longer hours because of understaffing and give up the flexibility with shift scheduling they long had.

Gardner’s colleagues need to be protected from burnout. But they just as desperately want to be valued by a corporate employer that takes them for granted.

“Just show some respect,” Gardner said, “and treat the employees like you’re really thankful for us.”

Rather than fortify workers for the long fight against COVID-19 that remains ahead, employers flout coronavirus guidelines and retaliate against those who challenge safety lapses. And instead of using its power to safeguard the heroes on the front lines, the federal government helps facilities silence their voices.

Forced to share disposable gowns during the pandemic, three workers at a New York senior-living facility discussed the danger among themselves before one wrote a letter to management citing the infection risk that the requirement posed. The facility responded by firing them.

Donald Trump’s anti-worker National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—acting through its general counsel, Peter Robb, who has pursued an agenda of undoing generations of cases favorable to workers—sided with the nursing home.

The NLRB dismissed the workers’ unfair labor practice charge after determining their efforts to safeguard their health failed to qualify as protected, concerted activity under federal labor law. The board strained to conclude there was no evidence of “group concern” in the workers’ actions. As a result of that case, health care workers across the country will be less likely to challenge safety risks even as the number of COVID-19 deaths continues to climb.

Since the pandemic began, the USW and other unions representing health care workers successfully forced many employers to adopt more stringent infection-control practices that protected staff and patients alike.

USW Local 9899 President Jackie Anklam pushed Ascension St. Mary’s Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan, to provide more respirators and gowns to workers caring for patients.

She also demanded better supplies for those cleaning the facility. When hospital managers tried to scale back the procedures for sanitizing rooms occupied by patients with infectious diseases, Anklam told them, “Then you go in there.”

Now, another NLRB case threatens that life-saving advocacy.

The agency dismissed another unfair labor practice charge after the general counsel’s office determined that a concrete company could refuse to bargain with union members over sick leave and hazard pay because the parties were in the middle of a contract.

To the NLRB, it didn’t matter that the pandemic had drastically changed working conditions, exposed workers to new risks requiring contract adjustments or created the need for their union to bargain about rights and benefits that couldn’t have been imagined months earlier. The decision potentially means employers in many industries, including health care, will refuse to bargain with workers on critical issues, such as COVID-19 safety practices, while contracts remain in place.

Anklam fears hospitals and nursing homes now will say, “It’s our way or no way,” when unions demand changes to protect staff and patients.

Already, far too many health care employers ignore workers’ concerns while exploiting their professionalism and compassion to keep them on the job.

Ford and his co-workers, for example, take great pride in collecting the blood that not only makes life-saving transfusions available virtually everywhere but also helps to advance research into public health dangers, like COVID-19.

He just wishes the wave of support Americans showed for health care workers at the beginning of the pandemic lasted as long as the health crisis itself and forced employers to make real, permanent changes in worksite safety.

Instead, health care workers perform ever more difficult jobs than they usually do—all without the proper equipment, support or attention they need to keep themselves and their patients safe. For too many Americans, health care workers are out of sight, out of mind.

“It’s back to business as usual,” Ford said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute on September 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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Health providers’ scramble for staff and supplies reveals sharp disparities

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Doctors, nurses and caregivers at smaller and poorer hospitals and medical facilities across the country are still struggling to obtain the protective gear, personnel and resources they need to fight the coronavirus despite President Donald Trump’s repeated assertions that the problems are solved.

Health care workers at all types of facilities scrambled for scarce masks, gloves and other life-protecting gear at the beginning of the pandemic. The White House was letting states wage bidding wars against one another, rather than establish a central national manufacturing, supply and distribution chain.

But now, health care workers say a clear disparity has emerged and persisted. Larger and richer hospitals and practices outbid their smaller peers, sometimes for protective gear, sometimes to fill in staffing gaps. And some of those having the hardest time are precisely where the virus is spreading.

A POLITICO survey of health care workers elicited dozens of stories from the front lines across the country. Reporters did follow up interviews with about a dozen survey respondents, and also interviewed other health care practitioners and policy experts. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from employers, as some medical facilities have threatened to fire workers for airing complaints publicly.

Health care administrators say the smaller and poorer facilities are also being outbid in the labor market, as providers compete for a limited pool of trained nurses and specialists who can care for Covid-19 patients amid chronic staff shortages and pandemic-induced industry upheaval. Their descriptions illustrate the shortcomings of a federal response that was initially focused on major hospitals while scores of smaller providers fell through the cracks.

The resulting disparities, especially among long-term care providers who often continue to care for patients after they leave the hospital or whose patients don’t require hospitalization but are still infectious, puts an asterisk on Trump’s claim that “they’re very much stocked up, they’re in great shape,” as he put it at one of his recent briefings.

“There’s not a single building I work in that has adequate Covid-19 supplies,” said a nursing home worker in Colorado, who requested anonymity.

The challenges may persist. On Friday, the FDA included surgical gowns, gloves, masks, certain ventilators and various testing supplies on its list of medical devices in shortage, based on manufacturer reports. The agency has required companies to report potential supply disruptions since May under the CARES Act.

The shortages of personal protective gear, or PPE, has taken a toll. Without adequate protection against a contagious pathogen, thousands of health workers have fallen ill, and at least 922 have died, according to a 50-state tracking project by Kaiser Health News and the Guardian.

Congressional Democrats have repeatedly petitioned the administration for more comprehensive information about lingering shortages and have been frustrated by the lack of up-to-date projections. Just this week, House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) complained that it has taken him months to get information on PPE from the administration — and then it’s out of date.

“They’ve fumbled at every turn,” Neal said in a statement.

GetUsPPE, the largest national organization distributing donated equipment, said it’s received a massive increase in requests for PPE over the past two months, as the virus walloped the Sun Belt states and spread throughout the country. But the group said there’s been a noticeable shift in who’s pleading for help. It’s no longer primarily hospitals, but smaller providers who can’t muster the same negotiating leverage.

“Those hospitals, at least speaking from experience, are figuring out the supply chains necessary to stock PPE,” said Ali Raja, the organization’s cofounder and vice chair of emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “What we’re seeing now is a lot of requests from visiting nurse associations, rehab facilities – the kind of places that take care of patients after they leave the hospital but still have weeks or months of illness.”

Health care leaders said these shortages stem from a mismatch of resources, as well as the pandemic’s shifting nature. While Congress made available $175 billion in coronavirus relief payments to help hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and other care providers, much of the initial funding went to well-resourced hospital systems regardless of need, with more targeted funding rounds coming later.

“Unfortunately, at every level of government, there has not been a coordinated response,” said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association (AHCA) and National Center for Assisted Living. “And there have been some public health mistakes that were made. Early on, everyone thought that every hospital in the country was going to be overrun with Covid. So the decision was made to put all the resources in the hospitals.”

That’s not to say PPE shortages are completely resolved in hospitals. Some front-line workers, even at well-resourced hospitals, say ongoing shortages have forced them to clean and reuse masks and gowns that were intended for single use.

“It’s an inappropriate use of PPE, it should be used one time on one patient,” said an ICU nurse in Henderson, Nev. who requested anonymity. “When we get sick because of inadequate PPE, it’s just adding to the problem of short staffing.”

Kevin Warren, president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, said that rising prices for PPE were putting financial strain on nursing homes and assisted living communities his group represents. He said that’s made it harder for some facilities to hire more nurses as they’re also struggling to compete with new bonus payments hospitals are offering to attract recruits.

“Given the cost of hero pay, and bonus payments and recruiting bonuses, they can’t compete in the market,” Warren said. “They can’t recruit someone away to work for them because they can’t compete in the labor market.”

At a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing, congressional Democrats argued that exorbitant prices for PPE were emblematic of the Trump administration’s failures.

Robert Wiehe, the chief supply chain and logistics officer for UC Health in Ohio, presented data at the hearing showing that his health system had paid up to ten times the normal price for masks and gowns due to shortages. After peaking in April and May, those prices began to decline but remained well above their pre-pandemic levels — particularly N95 masks, which still averaged more than double their normal price throughout June.

The Trump administration has pushed back, arguing it has mustered a massive supply of resources in response to an unprecedented pandemic.

“President Trump has led the greatest mobilization of the private sector since World War II to deliver critical supplies, including face masks, PPE, and ventilators, to the areas that need it most and saving countless lives,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said.

According to the latest White House estimates, FEMA and HHS have distributed 203 million N95 masks, 855 million surgical masks, 36 million goggles and face shields, 364 million gowns, and 21 billion gloves.

Ways and Means’ Neal officially requested information from the administration on PPE distribution in early April. By the time he got it in early August, it was out of date.

“Given the length of time it took for them to even respond to my request, I had low expectations for the details and explanation the Trump administration would have for disbursing personal protective equipment. This really should be one of their highest priorities and unfortunately, it is another example of how ill-prepared they were to handle this pandemic,” he said.

In June, an internal FEMA document projected that PPE supply would just barely cover demand if various kinds of single-use equipment could be cleaned and reused. But that forecast assumed steadily declining case numbers, and has not been updated since, according to agency. Health officials and workers say that once another wave of cases crested in July, shortages of PPE and personnel resumed.

A health director for an assisted living community in Texas, who requested anonymity, said she had seen this grim financial calculus play out firsthand, calling it a “recipe for disaster.” Unlike hospitals and nursing homes, assisted living communities have not received any targeted financial aid through the federal provider relief fund.

When her workplace saw an influx of coronavirus patients in late June, she requested additional nursing staff from her parent company. She was told by a regional operations manager that they were not hiring additional staff because the company’s investors would not approve the spending. Since then, as the only registered nurse caring for a community of approximately 100 elderly residents, she said she has overseen more than 60 positive cases and 8 deaths.

Even for unskilled positions like home health aides — who are paid low wages for grueling jobs — labor shortages remain problematic. A home health worker in Ohio said her short-staffed employer saw a dramatic decline in job applications because “there’s fear attached to working in a health care environment.”

While hospitals have generally fared better, doctors and nurses say efforts were hampered by the massive staff furloughs that occurred during lockdown in the spring. With elective procedures paused, hospitals grappled with large revenue shortfalls and cut payrolls to cope.

In April and May, the health care industry reported more than 1.4 million job losses, including 161,600 hospital and 83,800 nursing home jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While hospitals rebounded in June with a gain of 6,000 jobs, nursing homes continued to suffer with an additional 18,300 job losses.

“You were just working with less than you started with,” said Carrie Kroll, vice president at the Texas Hospital Association. “First it was just trying to get people deployed. Now we’ve been much more focused on trying to figure out how that’s getting paid for, and there are only so many people to go around.”

An ICU nurse in Las Vegas said that staffing levels at her small hospital fell noticeably while elective procedures were paused, and did not fully rebound when they resumed. She described the harrowing experience of caring for multiple unstable patients in the dead of night without the ability to call for backup because of thin staffing.

“The feeling you have when no one shows up to help you, it’s like ice in your veins, you never forget it,” she said. She added that while other nearby hospitals had bolstered nursing staff with $1,000 hiring bonuses, her workplace has not.

Adequate nurse staffing was already a contentious issue before the pandemic — for years, nursing unions have pushed for policies that mandate a minimum ratio of nurses-to-patients. California was the only state to enact such a mandate, but hospitals in the state since March have been able to apply for temporary waivers excusing them from the requirement.

Jessica Vasquez, an ICU nurse at San Joaquin General Hospital, which recently obtained such a waiver, argued that exceeding the ratios would put patients at risk.

“You take out the ratios, you mess with safe ratios, there’s possibility that this can be life or death for some patients,” she said. “There’s no way a nurse can give her attention to so many patients.”

San Joaquin General Hospital CEO David Culberson confirmed that his hospital had received a waiver for coronavirus-related patient surges in the ICU, telemetry and emergency departments, but stressed that the hospital was “committed to providing as many nurses as possible to all its patients in order to provide optimal patient care and meet staffing ratios.” He noted that the hospital had hired additional full-time nurses in recent weeks and was offering nursing staff extra shifts and paid overtime to meet the demand.

Many hospitals that did have funds to hire nonetheless struggled to find staff with specialist training and experience dealing with a highly contagious respiratory disease.

“You have people going there that in many cases had literally no idea what they are doing,” said Sunny Jha, an anesthesiologist at the University of Southern California. “They’ve never worked in an ICU, they’ve never worked in a disaster field, they had never worked with Covid patients, and in some cases they had never worked period — this was their first job out of school.” 

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 14, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tucker Doherty is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro.


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Thousands of health workers lose jobs in COVID crisis, while major hospital chains get richer

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Congress provided $100 billion in emergency funding to hospitals to respond to the coronavirus crisis in the CARES Act passed back in March. That was supposed to provide about $108,000 per hospital bed across the country, to help hospitals meet the resource gap they were experiencing and to ramp up infrastructure to meet the coming demand. The legislation gave wide discretion to the Secretary of Health and Human Services for the distribution of the funds, without imposing many constraints. That was a bit of a mistake, as an investigation from The New York Times demonstrates.

They’ve analyzed tax and securing filings from 60 large national hospital chains that received collectively more than $15 billion of that funding. They found that a lot of that money went into the pockets of CEOs while thousands of employees—health care and support workers—were furloughed, laid off, or had their pay cut. For example, HCA Healthcare, worth $36 billion and a chief executive was paid $26 million in 2019. HCA got $1 billion in emergency funding, but “employees at HCA repeatedly complained that the company was not providing adequate protective gear to nurses, medical technicians and cleaning staff,” and in May, “HCA executives warned that they would lay off thousands of nurses if they didn’t agree to wage freezes and other concessions.”

Of the 60 hospital chains the Times looked into, at least three dozen have laid off, furloughed, or cut the pay of their staff to “try to save money during the pandemic,” despite the fact that among them they’ve got tens of billions in cash reserves. The five highest-paid executives among these chains were paid a collective $874 million in the last year financial data was available. In interviews with more than a dozen workers at these hospitals, the Times found the it’s the front-line staff that’s been hurt the hardest—custodial and cafeteria workers, and nursing assistants. They also said that “pay cuts and furloughs made it even harder for members of the medical staff to do their jobs, forcing them to treat more patients in less time.”

The Mayo Clinic got $170 million in CARES funds, despite having something like eight months worth of funding in reserve. It has furloughed or cut hours for 23,000 employees, though one of the spokespeople who has not been furloughed tells the Times that Mayo executives have cut their own pay. Seven other chains—Trinity Health, Beaumont Health and the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan; SSM Health and Mercy in St. Louis; Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis; and Prisma Health in South Carolina—received a collection $1.5 billion and among them have let 30,000 employees go, either permanently or temporarily. Tenet Healthcare got $345 million in bailout money, and has furloughed 11,000. Stanford University’s health system got $100 million (it has 42.4 billion in reserve) and “is temporarily cutting the hours of nursing staff, nursing assistants, janitorial workers and others at its two hospitals.” The spokesman for the system says that those reductions are intended “to keep everyone employed and our staff at full wages with benefits intact.”

HCA, however, is the biggest villain here. The $1 billion—One. Billion.—it got in emergency grants is the largest. But in the past few months, the medical staff at 19 of its hospitals have filed Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints over lack of personal protective equipment, including respirator masks and gowns. At least two HCA employees have died from coronavirus because they didn’t have adequate PPE. Celia Yap-Banago, a nurse in Kansas City died in April. She treated a patient without wearing PPE. At an HCA hospital in Riverside, California, Rosa Luna and her fellow janitorial staff clean rooms of coronavirus patients, and haven’t been provided proper masks. Rosa Luna died last month, at the same time that HCA executive were warning the unions representing hospital workers that “unless the unionized workers amended their contracts to incorporate wage freezes and the elimination of company contributions to workers’ retirement plans, among other concessions.”

Yes, all of these systems have lost money because pretty much everything but coronavirus care has stopped in the last few months; elective surgeries and procedures have been cancelled, non-coronavirus emergencies like car wrecks have plummeted with stay-at-home orders. But these huge hospital chains, which have received disproportionate amounts of CARES bailout funds, have billions in reserve collectively. They have CEOs bringing home millions in salary and bonuses. They can afford to keep their staff.

They need to be required to use some of the bailout money to retain and pay staff at current, if not enhanced, hazard rates. The bailout funds have already been highlighted as problematic because they were not meted out by coronavirus case numbers, but by a formula that allowed HHS to send the money out fast whether it went to hospitals that needed it most or not. A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis last month showed that the wealthiest hospitals, with the highest care of private insurance revenue, were getting the bulk of the emergency grants: “hospitals in the top 10% based on share of private insurance revenue received $44,321 per hospital bed, more than double the $20,710 per hospital bed for those in the bottom 10% of private insurance revenue.”

This blog originally appeared at The Daily Kos on June 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Joan McCarter is a Contributing Editor for the Daily Kos.


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Democrats in Congress Should Rethink a Health Insurance Deal That Would Be Terrible for Many Americans

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Congress must act decisively to ensure Americans get needed health care in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, both to promote public health and to reduce viral spread. But one Democratic proposal is a massive giveaway to private insurance companies with few redeeming qualities.

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This proposal would require the federal government to cover the full cost of COBRA, a continuation of employer-based coverage for people who have lost their jobs or who are furloughed. Because COBRA is for ex-workers, employers do not contribute to its cost. Instead, people on COBRA are typically required to pay their entire health insurance premium, which now averages around $20,000 a year for a family.

While the government would pay COBRA premiums, this proposal still requires workers to pay out-of-pocket costs that could add up to thousands of dollars.

This approach is inequitable, expensive, and not targeted to addressing the public’s health and safety. It should be set aside in favor of direct payments to doctors, hospitals, and other providers who deliver care to those in need.

Having the government cover COBRA premiums would lock in existing health inequalities. It would not help people who worked in jobs that did not provide health care coverage or who otherwise did not have access to employer-based insurance. And, if you had employer coverage and your employer offered you a low-cost HMO with limited access to care, for example, that’s all this proposal would pay for. But if you were a highly paid employee at a hedge fund and had excellent coverage that cost twice as much, this proposal would pay for your more expensive coverage.

This plan commits tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to private health insurers, regardless of the quality or price of the coverage they offer. That is not where our public resources should be going.

And, to repeat, this proposal does not cover the high out-of-pocket costs that come with most work-based coverage. To get care, people need to be able to afford the deductibles and copays. But, even pre-coronavirus, one in four Americans with insurance went without care because they couldn’t afford these costs. Forty percent of Americans didn’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency. Today, with no steady income, more people have fewer resources and will be forced to forgo care even with COBRA.

Furthermore, this proposal does not make budgetary sense. If enacted, Congress would be paying tens of billions of dollars more for people’s coverage than it would if the federal government paid directly for their health care through Medicare, as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal have proposed.

Why is Medicare less costly? Medicare’s administrative costs alone are more than 10 percent lower than private insurance. Medicare also reins in provider payment rates.

Paying providers directly through Medicare has additional advantages. It treats everyone equally, ensuring that all of us will get the care we need. People can see any doctor they choose. And, there are no financial barriers to care.

Moreover, covering care through Medicare provides real-time data on the scope of COVID-19 through a single electronic billing system, which is sorely lacking today. This data has helped other wealthy countries contain the spread of the virus and effectively deploy resources where they are needed.

The government picking up the tab for COBRA coverage should be seen for what it is: A handout to the health insurance industry. It rewards health insurers who offer inefficient, low-quality, high-cost health plans. And, it does far too little to ensure people get needed care, much less contain COVID-19.

Earlier in April, AHIP, the trade association for the corporate health insurers, made this same proposal in a letter to Congress. Surprise, surprise.

Some of the Democrats behind this proposal have financial ties to the health insurance industry. So, perhaps this legislation is payback for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. If so, shame on these House Democrats.

Whatever the motivation, this is the wrong way to help our nation in a time of crisis. Help should go where it’s needed and where it will do the most good, not where it’s politically expedient.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Diane Archer is a senior adviser to Social Security Works and founder and president of Just Care USA, an independent digital hub covering health and financial issues facing boomers and their families and promoting policy solutions. She is the past board chair of Consumer Reports and serves on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Board. Ms. Archer began her career in health advocacy in 1989 as founder and president of the Medicare Rights Center, a national organization dedicated to ensuring that older and disabled Americans get the health care they need. She served as director, Health Care for All Project, Institute for America’s Future, between 2005 and 2010.

About the Author: Richard “RJ” Eskow is senior adviser for health and economic justice at Social Security Works. He is also the host of The Zero Hour, a syndicated progressive radio and television program.


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What Workers Have Already Won in the Face of Coronavirus

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The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the stark reality of the United States: our inadequate, for-profit health care system, our precarious employment conditions, and the deep inequality that is foundational to our society. But it’s also shown us that when things get dire enough, the working class fights back. Over the last few weeks, in dealing with the outbreak of the coronavirus, people across the United States have organized at their workplaces, and also won major reforms in the housing sector. Workers’ consciousness about the cruelty of our profit-driven society—and about their own power—is being raised by the day, thanks to the failure of government leadership. While it’s likely that we will enter a recession or even depression soon, workers are still fighting for what they deserve—and that struggle must continue after the pandemic passes.

While many workers have lost hours or even been laid off in the last few weeks, others have made advances in various industries amid the crisis, including securing paid time off and health and safety guarantees. Teachers in New York City forced Mayor Bill De Blasio to close city schools under threat of a mass sick-out, workers shut down a Chrysler plant near Detroit over concerns about how the company was dealing with the virus, and workers at McDonald’s won 14 days of paid sick leave, albeit only at corporate stores which account for about 5% of the fast food giants’ restaurants.

In Philadelphia, city library workers moved a petition among themselves, patrons and the larger community to demand both the closure of public libraries and paid time off for all workers, even those who are not members of the union. The petition dropped in the morning on Monday, March 16, and by Tuesday evening, it had over 4,000 signatures, and the workers won their demands. Terra Oliveira, an after-school leader at the Philadelphia Free Library, told In These Times, “Our access to paid leave and our basic rights shouldn’t be something that we have to fight for every single time there’s a crisis.” Non-union library workers have been organizing with their union colleagues for about a year, building the infrastructure necessary to deal with our current crisis.

Similarly, the housing movement has long fought for moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs. Both have felt like far-off possibilities, the absolute peak of what we could win in a perfect storm of political will and power. But Tara Raghuveer, campaign director of the Homes Guarantee Plan at People’s Action, told In These Times that “the pandemic is showing us what has always been possible, and what that means is that it’s always been possible to end the practice of eviction.” Because of the seriousness of coronavirus, organizers and activists have won either moratoriums on evictions or utility shut-offs in cities and states across the country, including Philadelphia, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. The coronavirus crisis is revealing what was true before: It is unconscionable to abandon people who are houseless or without work.  “This has opened up tremendous space to ask for more and win more,” Raghuvver said.

The apparent ease with which these long fought for reforms were granted demonstrates that it is—and has always been—well within the power of the state and corporations to acquiesce to our demands. It also shows that it isn’t the benevolence of politicians and CEOs that has secured these victories, but worker organizing. If workers hadn’t been demanding paid sick time and eviction moratoriums for years, we never would have won them now. “Now that these demands have been won during this emergency crisis, there is so much more solidarity and communication among library workers that wasn’t there before. We will continue to fight,” said library worker Oliveira.

The state spends exorbitant amounts of money when it’s capital that’s feeling the pain, a fact illustrated by the dramatic financial actions being taken or considered to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic: a $1.5 trillion loan by the Federal Reserve to inject into capital markets; an $8 billion spending package to fight the coronavirus; and a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill being considered at the time of this writing. These options obliterate the notion that money doesn’t exist to pay for programs like a Green New Deal, free college, free childcare, housing for all and various other social programs.

When it comes to spending to meet the needs of the millions of ordinary people who are hurting right now, politicians can’t muster the will. While the Democratic Party postures as recognizing and responding to this need in contrast to Trump, the proposals they’ve so far offered have been offensively mediocre and inadequate. H.R. 6201, trumpeted by Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats, offers paid sick leave benefits to only 20% of U.S. private sector workers—a figure that does not include informal economy workers. Former presidential candidate Kamala Harris also promoted a bill she had introduced that would give workers $500 each month—a pittance compared to the $2,000 per month cash payments to U.S. households floated by sen. Bernie Sanders.

We are heading into almost unprecedented economic territory—a potential 20% unemployment rate if our leaders don’t act now. More and more workers are facing the prospect of losing hours and even being laid off, as many major cities, municipalities and states impose shut downs for businesses except those classified as essential industries. Already, nearly one in five U.S. workers reports losing hours or work altogether since the onset of the coronavirus crisis earlier this month. We can expect that number to balloon in coming weeks and months as the public health crisis—and the ensuing economic crisis—continues to deepen. 

Some are trying using this crisis to fortify the tyrannical power employers have over workers’ lives. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz just suspended some collective bargaining rights for state employees, citing the need for “flexibility… during this peacetime emergency.” As workers unite to demand what we’ve always deserved, and the crisis deepens, some politicians and bosses will undoubtedly use this as an opportunity to ram through more neoliberal reforms that dismantle our rights and public institutions.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that in times of economic hardship, workers have the least power and leverage based on the scarcity of jobs and desperation for whatever we can get to provide for ourselves and our families. But strike activity and worker organizing is on the rise, the Bernie Sanders campaign program is raising political expectations, and workers are winning in the face of this pandemic. It’s reasonable to believe that when things “return to normal”—if that ever happens—politicians and bosses will attempt to take back all that we’ve won. They’ll try to strip paid sick leave from workers, and to reinstate evictions. But we mustn’t let them. Like Oliveira said, “It feels like only the beginning.” 

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on March 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.



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Coronavirus Shows Capitalism Is a Razor’s Edge

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My best friend works as a standardized patient, which means she is a practice patient for medical schools to train and test students. One day she’ll play an older woman with a pulmonary embolism, her face stricken with worry, the next someone with depression, limp and listless. Each workday medical students fumble at her bedside, and at her body, some nervous and gentle, others over-confident and brusque, as she guides them through learning their craft. It’s not bad for wage work, with each gig paying somewhere between $16 and $25 an hour, although this doesn’t always cover the time spent learning the part, let alone biking miles through Chicago’s potholed streets so she can make it from one 3-hour gig to the next.

Even though it’s not bad, she’s living—like most people in this country—on a razor’s edge. One of her gigs this week was cancelled because of the COVID 19 outbreak, which is now officially a global pandemic. Her employer paid her for the job, because she got less than 24-hours notice, but she will receive no pay for the other upcoming events this and next week that have been cancelled. One of her other gigs (all her jobs are non-union) has a two-week cancellation policy, a source of comfort to her. But what if that workplace gets shut down for more than two weeks? What if all of her jobs are shut down for six? If her income dries up, there’s no designated person to swoop in and help her, no bailout or government agency that has her number and will make sure she’s okay. She’s about two months out from not being able to pay rent or buy food.

My friend’s situation is unremarkable. She’s slightly better off than many Americans, 40% of whom don’t have enough money in the bank to weather a $400 emergency. She’s got $1,960 in her checking account, and $2,010 in her savings—although the latter will all go to her taxes, which are high because she’s classified as an independent contractor at some of her jobs. Perhaps most critically, she has access to extended networks of white wealth that people of color don’t have, and she can call on them in a pinch.

But like 27 million Americans, she doesn’t have health insurance. Of the last two bike accidents she got in, one was serious, but she couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, so she instead relied on friends who are nurses. One diagnosed her with a concussion over the phone. According to a Gallup poll from 2019, 25% of people in the United States say they or a family member “put off treatment for a serious medical condition in the past year because of the cost.” My friend, like all these people, can’t afford to miss work due to sickness, let alone treat what’s wrong with them when there’s not a global pandemic. What will she do if she gets COVID 19?

The GOP just blocked an emergency paid sick leave bill from advancing in the Senate. Oil and gas companies are pressing the White House to grant them a bailout from a downturn linked to COVID 19, and at the same time urging the Trump administration to avoid supporting any paid sick leave policy. Just like we lack a federal paid sick leave law, we have no guaranteed paid bereavement leave in this country. And in case we’d forgotten our precarity, Joe Biden just reminded us by suggesting that if he were president he’d veto Medicare for All—a universal, single-payer healthcare program—because it’s too expensive.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, higher-earning wage workers are “more than three times as likely to have access to paid sick leave as the lowest paid workers.” But only 30% of the lowest paid workers—who are more likely to have contact with the public in restaurants, daycares and retail outlets—get paid sick leave. Workers are not taking this sitting down. In New York, Chipotle employees are walking off the job and publicly protesting the company for allegedly penalizing workers who call in sick. “They want us to shut up,” worker Jeremy Pereyra, who says he was written up by Chipotle for calling in sick, told Gothamist. “They want us to stop. But we’re not going to stop until things get better.”

The first round of job losses is already here. The Washington Post reports that some drivers at the Port of Los Angeles were sent home without pay, others laid off. Travel agencies in Atlanta and Los Angeles let people go, as did a hotel in Seattle, a stage-lighting company in Orlando, and Carson’s Cookie Fix bakery in Omaha, hit by declining customers. “If my job’s laying off people, I can only imagine other employers are as well,” said Baiden King, who lost her job at the bakery, telling the Post she plans to move back in with her parents. “I’m not sure anyone will be hiring.”

Even before this crisis, workers were held captive by the stock market—most gaining nothing directly from its rise, which largely lines the pockets of rich people and distributes wealth upwards when it’s doing well. But workers feel its decline in the form of lost jobs and increased precarity. Now that stocks are tumbling amid the virus outbreak, this extortion racket is escalating, and the fundamental instability and savagery of capitalism is being laid bare.

The systems that are breaking down in this crisis were already broken before it began, and a radical reimagining of what could replace them is the best and only option—for this public health crisis, and for the ordinary, everyday crises that go unremarked. Universal income, Medicare for All, an immediate end to the brutal sanctions regime worsening the outbreak in Iran and around the world, a moratorium on evictions, the freeing of prisoners: Anything less than full social mobilization in the name of solidarity will leave us falling without a net. Or biking without health insurance, to a job that could evaporate.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.


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Pelosi brokers deal with liberals on drug pricing bill

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Sarah FerrisAdam CancrynHouse Democratic leadership on Tuesday clinched a deal to win progressive leaders’ support for a sweeping drug pricing bill that could clear its path for passage in the full House on Thursday.

The pact between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and progressive leaders includes an agreement to expand the government’s authority to directly negotiate drug prices under the legislation, ultimately requiring federal officials to hammer out the cost of at least 50 medicines a year, from the original 35.

“We’re likely to see the minimum number lifted, probably to 50,” said Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a member of Pelosi’s whip team. “My impression is that progressives will be good on this.”

Top Democrats are also restoring a progressive provision previously cut from the bill that would mandate the federal government eventually issue regulations restricting drugmakers’ ability to raise prices above the rate of inflation in workplace health plans, the largest source of coverage in the country.

The House Rules Committee later Tuesday night approved, 8-3, the rule that sets up debate on the bill, putting it on track for floor consideration. The panel also permitted a separate vote on Republicans’ bill, a measure GOP lawmakers have championed this week as a bipartisan alternative.

The chamber’s liberal wing had threatened to stall Pelosi’s bill if she refused to make a series of last-minute changes to the legislation, throwing the fate of Democrats’ top health care priority into doubt.

But the two sides brokered a tentative resolution this afternoon during a closed-door meeting that included Pelosi and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-leaders Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).

Jayapal called the deal a “huge win,” adding in a statement that “it shows what we can do when we stick together and all push hard for the American people.”

The changes represent a major victory for progressive leaders following a rare public showdown with Pelosi. They also come just one day after Pelosi and other senior Democrats warned progressive members against taking a hard-line stance on the bill.

Democratic leaders had long resisted making changes to the legislation that would push it further to the left, in part due to fears it could cost support from the dozens of moderate lawmakers key to keeping control of the House.

Many of those Democrats campaigned on lowering drug prices, and had pressed for weeks for a vote on the drug bill before the end of the year — while also warning against any last-minute efforts to make it more ambitious.

Yet top Democrats enraged progressives last week after eliminating the language authored by Jayapal that would have expanded certain price restrictions into the private sector, sparking talk of a rebellion aimed at tanking a procedural vote needed to put the bill on the floor.

In public, Democratic leaders this week expressed confidence that the bill could pass as originally written, insisting that it already represented “transformational” step toward slashing drug prices and that liberal lawmakers’ opposition would eventually collapse.

But Democratic leadership internally took the prospect of mass defections seriously, discussing it at several closed-door meetings on Tuesday.

Before leadership altered the bill, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters Tuesday she would vote no on the legislation without changes. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an outspoken critic of the bill as far too timid, had also previously threatened to vote against it. And progressive leaders in recent days warned they had enough votes to stop the key Democratic priority in its tracks with just days left on the congressional calendar this year.

Few if any of the chamber’s Republicans are expected to support the package, and it won’t get any traction in the GOP-controlled Senate. The White House on Tuesday issued an official veto threat against the House bill.

Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.

This article was originally published by the Politico on December 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Ferris covers budget and appropriations for POLITICO Pro. She was previously the lead healthcare and budget reporter for The Hill newspaper.

A graduate of the George Washington University, Ferris spent most of her time writing for The GW Hatchet. Her bylines have also appeared at The Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Raised on a dairy farm in Newtown, Conn., Ferris boasts a strong affinity for homemade ice cream, Dunkin Donuts coffee and the Boston Red Sox.

About the Author: Adam Cancryn is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro. Prior to joining POLITICO, he was a senior reporter for S&P Global Market Intelligence, covering the intersection of money, politics and regulation across the financial services and insurance industries. He’s also written for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires, and got his start at the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Adam is a graduate of Washington & Lee University and a proud New Jersey native.


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Southern Workers Unite Around Medicare for All: “A Tremendous Liberation From Your Boss”

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Image result for Jonathan Michels freelance journalist based in Durham, N.C."A line of cars rolls up to the government center of the largest city in a state tied with neighbor South Carolina for least unionized in the country. Members of the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA) emerge from the cars and join a picket line of Charlotte city workers. They hoist a banner declaring “The City Works Because We Do” and chant “What do we want? Medicare for All! When do we want it? Now!”

SWA is a coalition of worker committees and labor unions, including National Nurses United (NNU), the International Longshoremen’s Association, and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Members from across the South converged September 21 to kick off a campaign for the immediate passage of Medicare for All, known in the House as H.R. 1384.

Although unionized workers typically have access to some type of employer-based insurance (and often pay less in deductibles than nonunion workers), skyrocketing premiums and poor coverage continue to ignite unrest in all types of workplaces. An estimated 23.6 million U.S. workers with employer-based coverage spend at least 10% or more of their income on premiums and out-of-pocket costs, while wages remain stagnant. According to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average worker contribution for family coverage increased 25% since 2014 to a whopping $6,015 annually.

In Charlotte, Dominic Harris, 31, works as a utility technician and also serves as president of the Charlotte City Workers Union. Without Harris and his fellow workers, the gilded financial hub nicknamed Wall Street of the South could not function.

“We only have something to gain,” Harris says. Harris and other members of the SWA make it clear this is a worker-led fight to sever the chain between healthcare and employers.

Harris and other members of the SWA made it clear they do not see this as a fight for a handout; it’s a worker-led fight for a universal health program to sever the chain between healthcare and employers.

“Having Medicare for All is a tremendous liberation from your boss,” says Ed Bruno, former Southern regional director of NNU.

When nearly 50,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) walked off in September, one of their major grievances was the rising cost of health insurance. General Motors (GM) responded by canceling their benefits in an attempt to force workers back. GM restored health benefits 11 days later, and UAW finally reached an agreement with GM after more than five weeks of striking.

SWA members believe a worker-led campaign for Medicare for All has the potential to galvanize a working-class movement in the South after decades of anti-union legislation like so-called right-to-work laws. Just 2.7% of workers in North and South Carolina belong to unions. Meanwhile, health outcomes in the South lag too, and infant mortality rates remain the highest in the nation.

“Healthcare is a human right,” says Leslie Riddle, a state employee who traveled from West Virginia to join the picket line. Riddle, 44, receives coverage from the Public Employees Insurance Agency, the same state-based healthcare whose program incited West Virginia teachers to walk out in 2018. Riddle has Type 1 diabetes and is allergic to some forms of insulin, which means she could die without the correct formula. When Riddle’s insurance reclassified her insulin as non-formulary, her out-of-pocket cost rose dramatically. She survived only with financial support from her parents and free samples from her doctor.

Under Medicare for All, copayments, premiums and deductibles would be eliminated, removing financial barriers to care. This is vital for people with chronic health conditions.

SWA is focusing its efforts on reaching the overwhelming majority of Southern workers without a union. The group sets up workplace committees that help workers calculate how much of their wages are eaten up by healthcare expenses, demonstrating why Medicare for All would be a huge win. As the 2020 Democratic primary season draws closer, SWA members plan to organize town halls and petition government officials to pass resolutions in support of Medicare for All, to keep issue at the forefront of the debates.

Sekia Royall agreed to organize a workers’ committee in support of Medicare for All after she realized that guaranteed health care would allow her to focus on her dream job.

Royall currently works in the kitchen at the O’Berry Neuro-Medical Treatment Center in Goldsboro, N.C., preparing meals for patients with mental disabilities and neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

In her free time, though, Royall runs a catering business specializing in Kansas City barbecue, a rarity among the famous smokehouses that dominate eastern North Carolina. While Royall appreciates the important role she fills for her patients at O’Berry, her passion lies in running her own company. But pursuing her dream feels unrealistic to Royall, in part because it would mean losing her healthcare coverage provided through her employer.

“One of the reasons that I haven’t tried to quit my job and go full-time with my catering is because I do need healthcare coverage,” Royall says.

roadening the labor struggle through the right to healthcare is what inspired Bruno and other veteran activists, like Black Workers for Justice co-founder Saladin Muhammad, to throw themselves into SWA’s campaign.

“Legislation has never preceded the social movement,” Bruno says. “It was always the upheaval that preceded legislation. You can pretty much take that to the bank.”

Though still in its infancy, the Southern Workers Assembly campaign could prove to be a critical test case for building the kind of large, grassroots movement that past campaigns have shown will be necessary to overcome the powerful corporate interests bent on defeating a universal, national health program.

Medicare for All supporters face stiff opposition from drug companies, private insurers and other medical profiteers who are already well-financed and unified in attacking reforms that would decrease their profit margins. One example is the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a corporate front group created to stymie the growing Medicare for All movement by pressuring Democratic lawmakers to protect the Affordable Care Act, steering the party away from Medicare for All in 2020.

SWA members believe they can overcome their well-heeled opposition by mobilizing enough workers.

“If we can get every worker in every workplace to support just one thing, then that thing will get passed,” Harris says. “There’s nothing that a combined group of workers can’t accomplish.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 19, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Michels is a freelance journalist based in Durham, N.C.

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