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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.

Richard Eskow - The Ring of Fire Network

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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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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Medicare for All’s jobs problem

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Rachana PradhanDeanna Mazur, the daughter of a retired steel mill worker who works as a medical billing manager, finds some things to like about the “Medicare for All” policy that she’s been hearing politicians talk about. She likes the notion that all Americans would have health insurance. And it would simplify her own job quite a bit if there were only one place to send medical bills, instead of the web of private companies and government programs that she deals with now. “It would definitely be easier,” Mazur says.

Then again, if it were that easy, her job might not exist at all.

Mazur’s job and those of millions of others have helped turn health care into the largest sector of the nation’s economy, a multitrillion-dollar industry consisting in part of a huge network of payers, processers, and specialists in the complex world of making sure everything in the system gets paid for. If the health care system were actually restructured to eliminate private insurance, the way Medicare for All’s advocates ultimately envision it, a lot of people with steady, good-paying jobs right now might find themselves out of work.

“What if my job doesn’t exist anymore?” she asked in a recent interview.

This question has particular resonance in this part of Pennsylvania, a must-win swing state in the presidential race, which has already seen massive job dislocation from the decline of manufacturing. As Pittsburgh’s iconic steel industry has been gutted, the city’s economy has been hugely buoyed by health care, which has grown into the region’s largest industry — employing about 140,000 people, or 20 percent of the regional workforce. The city’s former U.S. Steel complex is now, appropriately enough, the headquarters of a mammoth hospital system, one of two health care companies deeply entrenched in the city’s economy.

There are lots of health reform ideas that wrap themselves in the “Medicare for All” label, ranging from a single government-run system to plans that maintain a role for private insurance companies. But under the most ambitious schemes, millions of health care workers would be at least displaced if not laid off, as the insurance industry disappears or is restructured and policymakers work to bring down the costs of the system by reducing high overhead and labor costs. The reform proposals being promoted by Democratic presidential candidates have barely grappled with this problem.

Initial research from University of Massachusetts economists who have consulted with multiple 2020 campaigns has estimated that 1.8 million health care jobs nationwide would no longer be needed if Medicare for All became law, upending health insurance companies and thousands of middle class workers whose jobs largely deal with them, including insurance brokers, medical billing workers and other administrative employees. One widely cited study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that administration accounted for nearly a third of the U.S.’ health care expenses.

Even if a bigger government expansion into health care left doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals’ jobs intact, it would still cause a restructuring of a sprawling system that employs millions of middle-class Americans.

Claire Cohen, a Pittsburgh-based child psychiatrist, voted for Bernie Sanders, the architect of the most sweeping version of Medicare for All, in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. She says the national discussion about single payer and its overwhelming focus on paying higher taxes or losing private insurance misses the point ? she argues individuals would see greater benefit from a health care system without premiums, copays and other costs that increasingly make health care out of reach. But the question about jobs, she says, is a “legitimate” issue ? one she says people haven’t completely thought through.

“You don’t want to leave all these people in the lurch without jobs,” Cohen said.

Having it both ways

The idea of one national health plan covering all Americans has steadily grown more popular in public opinion polls over time, a sea change that coincides with Medicare for All becoming near orthodoxy for progressive Democrats. Prior to 2016, when Sanders made it the linchpin of his insurgent run for president, less than half of Americans supported setting up a such a system, according to Kaiser Family Foundation polling. Now, just over half of the public backs it.

When it comes to the costs of reform, taxes are the headline issue, and the movement’s advocates on the national stage ? Sanders and fellow Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren, among others ? have largely had to defend Medicare for All against charges that middle-class taxes would have to go up to finance a new government-run system. But the question of what single-payer health care would do to jobs and the economy has largely been overlooked. In the past, Sanders has answered questions about the economic ramifications with vague claims about transitioning to other jobs in the health sector.

“When we provide insurance to 29 million people who today don’t have it, when we deal with the problems of high deductibles and copayments and more people get the health care that they want and they need, we?re going to have all kinds of jobs opened up in health care,” Sanders claimed during a 2016 CNN town hall when asked by a retired health insurance worker what would happen to jobs in the industry. “And the first people in line should be those people who are currently in the private health insurance industry.”

Economists dispute the extent to which this would occur. Robert Pollin, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has consulted with Sanders’ and Warren’s teams over Medicare for All, says that while people could be retrained for different jobs, there are no guarantees they’d work in the newly created government health care system, since one of the goals is to cut down on administrative overhead. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have savings through administrative simplicity and more jobs. The government won’t need these people,” Pollin said.

Health care workers are interwoven throughout the economy, employed by large institutions like hospitals, health insurance companies and nursing homes but also in places like small accounting firms that help clinicians get reimbursed for care, and as independent brokers who help sell insurance products to customers.

Mazur handles medical billing for physicians through Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance, the last of which is the most complicated. Under Medicare for All, “They don’t have to worry about, am I going to get paid for this service based on what insurance the patient has? It would be the same rules for everybody.”

In Pittsburgh, workers in the health care economy interviewed for this article weren’t necessarily against a single-payer system, even if it meant their work would be personally affected. But they did consistently say that Democratic candidates for president need to make the employment implications clearer.

Marc Schermer, a Pittsburgh-based insurance broker who sells health plans to individual customers as well as small businesses, says he’d likely experience a temporary setback but believes he’d manage since he sells other kinds of insurance, too. He even thinks single payer is an idea “he could get behind” because removing private insurance companies from the system would simplify things.

“I’m pretty well diversified so that if suddenly the ‘Medicare for All’ thing happened, and companies like United and Highmark and UPMC and Aetna were brushed aside, I would still have something to do,” Schermer said. “But there are a lot of people who are employed directly by those companies who would be up a creek.”

Medicare for All isn’t predicted to disrupt all job types and could even potentially benefit certain types of health care workers ? for example, by expanding the need for caregivers because of a proposed expansion of long-term care benefits. And Medicare for All would provide health benefits to tens of millions who are still uninsured, creating additional demand for doctors and other providers. Still, others are likely to be lost in the short term.

“We vilify the health care industry, but it provides jobs to a lot of people, and not just jobs for wealthy people but jobs for everyday people,” said Janette Dill, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who has studied the rise of health care-related employment among the working class. “That’s one thing it’s really good at.”

Health care jobs in Allegheny County, the region surrounding Pittsburgh, grew from roughly 90,000 in 1990 to around 140,000 this year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Another 9,500 people work directly for health insurance companies and about 3,200 work for insurance agencies or brokerages, which includes people who sell health insurance policies.

The power of the health care industry in southwestern Pennsylvania is inescapable. Hospitals and clinics controlled by two competing health care behemoths, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, dot Pittsburgh’s streets. The two companies have slowly moved in on the other’s territory and saturated Pittsburgh’s health care market, with the iconic UPMC brand operating a health insurance arm, and Highmark BCBS running the Allegheny Health Network system of hospitals and clinics.

Both companies declined to comment on the potential impact of Medicare for All on their workforces.

University of Massachusetts researchers who analyzed the 2017 version of Sanders’ Medicare for All bill estimated that nationwide more than 800,000 people who work for private health insurance companies and a further 1 million who handle administrative work for health care providers would see their jobs evaporate.

The workers generally earn middle-class wages, according to the November 2018 study forecasting the economic ramifications of Sanders’ plan. The median annual income of a worker employed in the health insurance industry is nearly $55,000; for office and administrative jobs at health care service sites, it’s about $35,000, researchers said.

“The savings don’t come out of the sky,” said Pollin. “The main way we save money is through administrative simplicity. That means layoffs. There’s just no way around it.”

Extra dollars, extra life?

Of course, the larger problem behind the question of job losses is just how much of the U.S. economy should be devoted to health care.

Economists say there isn’t a magic number for how large or small the health care sector should be. But they often express concern that the U.S. gets too little benefit for the amount of money it spends, with spending levels twice that of many other developed nations and actual health outcomes significantly lower. Much of that money goes to overhead, in the form of middlemen like insurers and the surrounding industries.

“The problem is you’re spending extra dollars right now, and it’s not at all clear you’re getting extra life for it,” said Katherine Baicker, a health care economist and dean of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

Cutting those excess costs has appeal to economists, who prioritize efficiency and value for money. But politically it can be a challenge when what looks like an “excess cost” from a distance looks like a good-paying job to the person who holds it. Nationally, the growing health care sector was an economic bright spot even during the Great Recession, continuing to add jobs while others shed millions of workers, according to an analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Medicare for All also wouldn’t be the first, nor likely the last, initiative that would cause economic upheaval for a major jobs engine. Baicker argues that the jobs piece isn’t a metric that people should use to judge whether single payer is worth it, because in a dynamic economy different sectors grow while others shrink.

“What you need is transition help for those people whose sectors are shrinking,” Baicker said. We may all be better off in the long run when we can produce all the food we need with many fewer people working in agriculture … that doesn’t mean that you can instantaneously turn a farmer into a software engineer or a nurse into a financial expert.”

There’s some precedent for federal programs that help individuals whose jobs have been upended because of broader economic policy decisions, including the Trade Adjustment Assistance program that helps workers displaced by global trade.

The latest Medicare for All bills in the House and Senate, championed by members in Democrats’ most liberal wing, include provisions addressing assistance for displaced workers. The House version spearheaded by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, mandates that for up to five years at least 1 percent of the new health care program’s budget will be spent on efforts to prevent dislocation for health insurance administrative workers or individuals who perform related work at health care organizations.

“This happens every time there’s innovation,” said Jayapal, who co-chairs the House’s Progressive Caucus. “It happens with Lyft and Uber. It happens with movie cameras instead of still photographs. This is part of what happens as you make things better.”

Sanders’ legislation appears to be more limited. The bill allows — but doesn’t require ? that such assistance be provided to workers and caps the amount at 1 percent.

Even in Pittsburgh, not everyone is worried that a national health care law would gut the area’s leading industry yet again. When manufacturing declined in the 1980s in the region, “nobody really cared” and workers were just told to “suck it up” in response to job loss, said Ed Grystar, a longtime union organizer and chair of the Western PA Coalition for Single-Payer Healthcare.

Grystar, who says he spent most of his life negotiating contracts for nurses, says Medicare for All represents a “monumental shift for social justice” to help people access something they deserve. The current system, with its out of control prices and dysfunction, “can’t go on.”

As for the insurance jobs?

“Who cares if [insurance companies] go out of business?’’ Grystar said in an interview. “This is a net positive for society as a whole.”

This article was originally published by Politico on November 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachana Pradhan is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before coming to POLITICO, she spent more than three years at Inside Health Policy focusing on implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Prior to that, Pradhan worked at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va., and spent most of her time covering city government (with the occasional foray into stories on urban chicken-keeping and the closure of neighborhood pools).

Pradhan is a rare local of the Washington, D.C., area and graduated from James Madison University. She was also news editor of JMU’s student newspaper, The Breeze.


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Trump’s new rule allows employers to drop birth control coverage with no oversight

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New contraception rules outlined by the Trump administration will allow employers to stop covering birth control — with zero government oversight.

The administration announced on Friday that, effective immediately, it was rolling back federal requirements introduced under the Obama administration which require employers to include birth control in their health insurance plans. Under the new rules, employers can simply self-exempt, citing religious or moral objections, and tell their workers that their birth control is no longer part of their health-insurance coverage.

Those employers are not required to tell the government either, according to PBS NewsHour correspondent Lisa Desjardins. They need to notify the insurers, and can send an optional note to the government.

The new rules fulfill a key campaign promise the Trump administration made to social conservatives, who have continually voiced dissent with the Obama-era federal requirement and challenged it in court. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said it was a “landmark day for religious liberty” and would ensure that people “can freely live out their religious convictions and moral beliefs.”

But the rules are deeply damaging to women’s reproductive health, and reflect a wider trend of the Trump administration attempting to dismantle women’s access to health care by opposing abortion rights and cutting grants aimed at tackling teen pregnancy.

“They like to talk about these policies in isolation,” Adam Sonfield of the Guttmacher Institute told ThinkProgress’ Amanda Gomez. “They are not just trying to undermine contraceptive coverage. They’ve tried to cut Title IX funding, Planned Parenthood funding… you have to see it as a coordinated campaign.”

The ACLU, along with the Center for Reproductive Rights, Americans United for Separation of Church, and the state of California, have all said they intend to sue the Trump administration for denying birth control to women.

Conservatives have long insisted that the birth control rollbacks are designed to protect the religious liberty of groups who believe providing contraceptives would violate their moral beliefs. However, data provided by the Center for American Progress to Vox in August showed that the majority of the companies that had applied for and received exceptions were for-profit corporations. They included companies that worked in human resources, industrial machinery, and wholesale trade. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within CAP.)

According to Jamila Taylor, a senior fellow at CAP, the rules suggested Trump’s rollbacks “will open up the floodgates for nearly anyone to force women to pay out of pocket or navigate hurdles to obtaining additional cost for contraception… and simply chalk it up to moral opposition.”

About the Author: Luke Barnes is a reporter at ThinkProgress. He previously worked at MailOnline in the U.K., where he was sent to cover Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 2015 from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He has also interned at Talking Points Memo, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and Narratively.


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Foundry Workers Strike to Save Their Healthcare

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david baconBerkeley, Calif.—A strike of more than 450 workers in one of the largest foundries on the west coast brought production to a halt Sunday night, at Pacific Steel Castings.  The work stoppage, which began at midnight, has continued with round-the-clock picketing at the factory gates in West Berkeley.

Local 164B of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union (GMP) has been negotiating a new labor agreement at Pacific Steel for several months. The old agreement expired on Sunday night.

The strike was caused by demands from the company’s owners for concessions and takeaway proposals in contract negotiations. Those include:

  • requiring workers to pay at least 20% of the cost of their medical insurance, amounting to about $300 per month per employee.
  • a wage freeze for the first two years of the agreement, and tiny raises after that.
  • eliminating the ability of workers to use their seniority to bid for overtime, allowing criteria including speedup, discrimination and favoritism.

david_bacon_strike_3222011-432x248
Striking Pacific Steel Castings workers on Berkeley’s new picket line, outside their foundry on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (Photo by David Bacon)

“All eight other foundries in the Bay Area have agreed to a fair contract,” said Ignacio De La Fuente, GMP international vice-president. “Workers at Pacific Steel haven’t had a raise in the last two years, in order to help the company pay for increases in health plan costs.  Pacific Steel is now alone among the rest in trying to make its workers give back $300 a month.”

The $300/month would mean an approximately 10 percent cut in wages for most workers at the foundry.

Joel Soto, a member of the union’s negotiating committee, has worked eight years at Pacific Steel, and has a wife, 2-year-old child and another on the way.  Soto said, “We’ve been trying to save money for a house. If we have to give up $300 a month, we’ll have to continue renting.  My wife and I both support our parents, and that $300 cut is what we’re able to give them now that they’re old.  And with my wife pregnant, we can’t do without that medical care.”

Benito Navarro has 10 years at the foundry, and a wife and son. “That $300 is what I pay for my car to get to work. I’m the only one in my family working, so if we don’t  have that money, I’ll have to give up the car.  But I’d rather eat than drive.”

On both Monday and Tuesday dozens of Berkeley police, with helmets and face shields, shoved and hit strikers as they attempted to help the company bring trucks full of castings out of its struck facility. On Tuesday, one striker, Norma Garcia, who is seven months pregnant, was struck in the abdomen and taken to a hospital.

“It is inexcusable that Berkeley is spending precious municipal resources on providing protection for this business, and opening the city to liability through these unprovoked actions by police against strikers,” said De La Fuente.

“That violence isn’t necessary,” added Soto. “We’re just struggling for our rights. I wouldn’t be so surprised to see this in other cities, but Berkeley?”  Another worker showed the swelling on his arm he said was caused by a blow from a police baton.

Workers feel additionally betrayed by the company because they and their union testified before the Berkeley City Council three years ago.  They urged the city to draft environmental regulations that would allow the foundry to continue operating while installing needed pollution control equipment.

Pacific Steel Casting Co. is a privately held corporation, the third-largest steel foundry in the United States. Its large corporate customers include vehicle manufacturers, like Petebilt Corp., and big oil companies, including BARCO.  The company has been very productive in recent years, despite the recession. It chose not to comment.

About the Author: David Bacon is writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

This Blog Originally Appeared In These Times on March 23, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.


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NFL Lockout Could Cost $160 Million, 115,000 Jobs

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Image: James ParksIf the National Football League owners lock out the players next season, not only will millions of fans not have games to watch on Sunday afternoon, but more than 115,000 jobs could be lost, according to a new study.

The 32 NFL teams employ on average 3,739 people each, including players, concession workers and office staff. If the lockout lasts a long time, layoffs are likely and many of those jobs would not come back, said Jesse David, senior vice president of the economic consulting firm Edgeworth Economics, who conducted a study of the impact of a lockout for the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). Check out a summary of the study here.

Not only are the players affected, but the jobs of more than 25,000 concession workers at stadiums across the country are threatened by the lockout. (See video above.)

In a telephone press conference this morning, David and NFLPA official George Atallah said each NFL home game generates on average $20 million for the team and the community. A lockout could cost each of the 32 NFL cities. as much as $160 million, they said.

“A lockout would have an impact beyond the players,” Atallah said.

We want to raise public consciousness of the effect [on communities] if the owners lock out the players.

The NFLPA has joined with the other workers in the stadiums and the rest of the union movement to fight management’s greed. Last month, the NFLPA announced that its members will fully affiliate with all AFL-CIO state federations and the central labor councils where their NFL teams are based.

The owners terminated the collective bargaining agreement two years ago because, they say, it isn’t working for them. But they refuse to provide audited financial information to explain what is wrong in a business that generated $9 billion in 2009 during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The owners are demanding that the players give back $1 billion, although not one team has lost money. They also want players to pay for team travel and the cost of running practice facilities.

On top of that, the owners have threatened to make the players pay for their own health care in case of a lockout. As it is, management provides only five years of health care coverage after players retire. Players’ NFL careers average only 3.4 years and many retire with a range of serious health problems. Not many people would argue that facing a 325-pound lineman running at full speed over and over could be dangerous to your health

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris


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If health care shouldn’t be mandatory, let’s go after car insurance next

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Image: Bob RosnerThis week in a Pensacola, FL courtroom, lawyers representing the Attorney Generals of at least 19 states will argue about the recently passed national health insurance plan that requires all citizens to have health insurance. [BTW, this is a Workplace911 topic because the majority of funding of health care continues to come from the workplace]

Think of it as tea party heaven. The draconian effort to force health care on all US citizens will finally get it’s day in court. Yippee.

But why stop here? I’d like to see the same government-funded lawyers, ah don’t you love all those libertarians using public-funded civic servants to stop public funding of health care as an unnecessary burden? Did anyone ever think to use private lawyers to fight this case? Apparently there are still many places where modern day libertarians are comfy living on the dole. I think there is a word for that, socialist.

But I digress, I’d like them to go after car insurance next.

Why should law-abiding citizens be forced to have auto insurance? It’s crazy, unnecessary and not at all what our founding fathers had in mind.

Mandatory car insurance? Are you kidding me? Let’s let the free market handle it.

Sue, baby, sue. Just please be sure to make auto insurance your next target. Please do it for us.

Okay, that was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, although for the life of me I don’t get that saying. Where else is my tongue supposed to be? And speaking of tongues, I wish those Attorneys General would stifle theirs.

Let’s look at my car insurance analogy for a moment. What if car insurance was optional? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to get on the road knowing that if someone hit me and it was 100% their fault, I would still have to sue them to get any compensation for the damage that they created.

If you thought riding the bumper cars at the state fair was fun, wait until you see our highways without auto insurance.

I know health care is different, because if someone gets a heart attack and ends up in the hospital it has nothing to do with me. It’s just between them and the government that will have to pay their hospital bills. Wait, it does have something to do with me. Wait, it has everything to do with me.

I suddenly realized that libertarians are against the government until there is a fire. Or until there is a lawsuit they’d like to file. Or until they get sick. Cut a tea partier and I think you’ll find a socialist just under the surface. Because you never hear these people talk about who will pay for all the uncovered medical problems that people will face in their hoped for new utopia.

Wait a minute. I’ve lived in their utopia, huge numbers of people unable to afford health insurance and the rest of us picking up the tab.

Which got me thinking. What America really needs right now is a better libertarian, because the current brand is pretty much indistinguishable from any socialist that I ever met.

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]


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Court Blocks Hikes Sought by Massachusetts Health Insurance Corps.

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A Massachusetts court yesterday blocked premium increases—some as high as 40 percent—sought by six state health insurers. The action by the Suffolk Superior Court was the second time the insurance companies’ bid to boost rates was rejected. The state Division of Insurance rejected the rate hikes last month, calling them “excessive.”

The insurance companies then filed suit claiming the state has no authority to block the premium increases and sought an injunction to prevent the state from regulating premiums until the suit comes to trial. The judge rejected the request.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Gov. Deval Patrick (D) praised the court’s decision.

Unless insurers can give us a good reason, when everything else is flat, that they deserve 20 percent, 30 percent and in some cases 40 percent increases, they’re going to be denied.

The judge said the Massachusetts companies must exhaust all their administrative appeals within the Insurance Division before the suit over the state’s ability to regulate premium costs can go forward.

The case is drawing national attention because, in 2006, Massachusetts passed a health care reform law that has several similar provisions to the recently enacted national health care reform law, including regulating premium increases.

In February, when Anthem Blue Cross in California announced it was raising premiums by as much as 39 percent, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said, “Too many Americans are at the whim of private, for-profit insurance companies.”

Anthem Blue Cross’ parent company, WellPoint, posted $4.9 billion in profits in 2009. Sebelius said health insurance companies like WellPoint “are raking in billions in profits each year, while policyholders struggle to make ends meet in this tough economy.” In a letter to Anthem President Leslie Margolin, she demanded the company provide justification for the increases.

The extraordinary increases are up to 15 times faster than inflation. Your company’s strong financial position makes these rate increases even more difficult to understand.

Following public outcry, the company agreed to postpone the rate hikes until May, pending a review by an outside actuary appointed by the state insurance commissioner.

*This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO on April 13, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.


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So, What’s In the Reconciliation Bill?

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The President signed the Senate health care bill into law at noon today.

This year, over 4 million small businesses will get tax credits worth up to 35% of their health care costs. This year, seniors will get $250 towards closing their coverage donut hole. This year, young Americans will be able to stay on their parent’s insurance plan until they are 26. This year, lifetime caps on benefits will be a thing of the past. And this year, the people with pre-existing conditions who can’t get health care now at any price will be able to buy into high-risk pools until the exchanges are set up in 2014.

But we are not done. Right after the House passed the health care bill on Sunday, they passed a package of improvements that now head to the Senate for an up-or-down vote.

The fixes heading to the Senate are mostly focused on making health care affordable to middle class families.

First, the package vastly improves the excise tax on “Cadillac” insurance plans, raising the threshold at which a plan will be affected to $10,200 for individual plans and $27,500 for family coverage. It also delays the implementation of the tax until 2018. As a result, the burden on middle tax families will be dramatically reduced.

To make up for the loss in revenue, the fixes broaden the Medicare payroll tax on on rich investors, taxing net investment income for those who make more than $250,000 per year.

And second, the package increases the subsidies available in the exchanges for middle class families and lowers their cost sharing. With the package, a lower percentage of a family’s income will be spent on health care costs – both premiums and out of pocket.

And there are more provisions in the package that would help broad swaths of the American public:

  • The package fully closes the donut hole for seniors over time
  • It freezes Medicare Advantage overpayments to private insurers and requires private insurers to pay 85% of money in to benefits in Medicare Advantage, to match the levels for all insurance plans in the health care bill
  • It strikes the deals Senators like Ben Nelson received and replaces them with increased Medicaid funding to all states
  • And it funds student loans for millions of young Americans

The Senate, after a string of favorable parliamentary rulings, is expected to take up the improvements under budget reconciliation rules today, with the goal of a final vote at the end of this week before the Easter recess.

*This post originally appeared in Health Care For America Now on March 23, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jason Rosenbaum is a writer and musician currently residing in Washington D.C. He is interested in the intersection of politics and culture, media consolidation issues, and making sense out of our foreign policy disasters. He currently works for Health Care for America Now and he is also the webmaster for The Seminal.


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What Health Reform Will Do for America – Two Examples

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Two headlines today highlight glaring problems in our health care system that would be fixed if health reform passes.

First, from Pennsylvania, the New York Times headlines “Big Insurance Rate Increase for Pennsylvania Poor”:

Facing a sharp rise in costs, Pennsylvania has almost doubled the monthly bill for a state health insurance program for poor people who do not qualify for Medicaid and are on a waiting list for a less costly option.

On March 1, the cost of the plan rose to about $600 a month, up from $313 a month, for the roughly 2,400 state residents on the waiting list.

Established in 2002, Pennsylvania’s state insurance program, called AdultBasic, covers adults ages 19 to 65 with incomes lower than twice the federal poverty level, or about $21,672 for a single person, at a cost to participants of about $36 per month. About 39,000 people are enrolled in AdultBasic.

About 390,000 other people are on a waiting list to join the AdultBasic program. While they wait, the state gives them the option to pay for the same insurance at a higher rate. It is the cost for members of the waiting list that rose on March 1 to about $600 a month.

Health reform solves this problem.

For families who make 133% of the Federal Poverty Level or less – about $24,000 per year – health reform would allow them to get on Medicaid. Those families who make more than that – up to 400% of the FPL or about $73,000 per year – will be able to purchase heavily subsidized insurance in the Exchanges.

For families making between 133% FPL and 200% FPL ($24,000 – $36,000 per year) – the people affected by Pennsylvania’s rate increase above – their average cost for insurance, both premiums and out of pocket, will be [pdf] around $63 per month for families at 133% up to $244 per month for families at 200%.

The next headline is from Kaiser Health News, “Drug Prices Rise For Seniors Who Reach Medicare Part D Coverage Gap”:

Seniors who hit the coverage gap in their Medicare prescription drug plans and must use their own money to buy drugs are facing price increases that are far outpacing inflation, a new study finds.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, prices paid by enrollees in standalone Part D plans who enter the coverage gap increased 5 percent or more since January 2009 for half of 10 brand-name drugs most commonly used by seniors. That’s almost twice the rate of inflation over the same period.

For example, the price of Actonel, a treatment for osteoporosis, increased 8 percent, from $91 per month in 2009 to $98 per month in 2010. Meanwhile, the prices for both Aricept, an Alzheimer’s medication, and Plavix, a drug used to prevent blood clots, both increased by 7 percent during the same period. Aricept’s prices rose from $184 to $198 while Plavix’s rose from $142 to $152. Lipitor, a cholesterol medication, was the only drug surveyed that decreased in price, from slightly more than $86 to just under $86 per month.

The rising prices are part of a longer is sufficient longer-term trend. Between January 2006 and January 2010, the analysis showed, prices of drugs bought by seniors who hit the coverage gap increased 20 to 25 percent for Lipitor, Plavix, Nexium, a drug for acid-reflux, and Lexapro, a medication for depression and anxiety; 39 percent for Actonel, and 41 percent for Aricept. Over the same period, inflation has increased 9.2 percent while prices for medical care have surged 16.1 percent.

Health reform solves this problem, too. Immediately after passage of the bill, seniors will get immediate relief that starts closing that coverage gap. The gap will be completely closed as health reform is implemented.

There are a few more noteworthy immediate affects of reform as well:

  • Prohibit pre-existing condition exclusions for children in all new plans;
  • Provide immediate access to insurance for uninsured Americans who are uninsured because of a pre-existing condition through a temporary high-risk pool; (this will help with the Pennsylvania situation as well)
  • Prohibit dropping people from coverage when they get sick in all individual plans;
  • Offer tax credits to small businesses to purchase coverage;
  • Eliminate lifetime limits and restrictive annual limits on benefits in all plans;
  • Require plans to cover an enrollee’s dependent children until age 26;
  • Require new plans to cover preventive services and immunizations without cost-sharing;
  • Ensure consumers have access to an effective internal and external appeals process to appeal new insurance plan decisions;
  • Require premium rebates to enrollees from insurers with high administrative expenditures and require public disclosure of the percent of premiums applied to overhead costs.

Reform will also help people like 11-year-old Marcelas Owens, who’s mother died because she didn’t have insurance:

And Matt Masterson’s son, who’s pre-existing condition makes him virtually uninsurable, a near death sentence as soon as he’s kicked of his father’s insurance plan in a few years:

Finally, today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee came out with numbers on how reform will help people in every Congressional district.

The vote is coming in the House. It’s likely to take place this weekend. Without reform, none of these problems get solved, and the insurance companies will get to continue their business practices of denying care and carving out coverage while making record profits.

It’s time to for the House to decide, and you should pick up the phone and help them.

*This post originally appeared in Health Care For America Now on March 17, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jason Rosenbaum is a writer and musician currently residing in Washington D.C. He is interested in the intersection of politics and culture, media consolidation issues, and making sense out of our foreign policy disasters. He currently works for Health Care for America Now and he is also the webmaster for The Seminal.


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