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Press Associates, Inc. (PAI) -- 3/12/2007

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)--Armed with universal denunciation of the failing, creaky, expensive present employer-based insurance-company-run health care system, the AFL-CIO Executive Council unanimously voted March 6 to campaign for a massive change: Expanding Medicare to the entire country.

Union leaders ranging from AFSCME President Gerald McEntee to Steel Workers President Leo Gerard to leaders of building trades unions--even those with multi-employer health care plans jointly run by unions and management--blasted the present setup. "We're getting killed by this stuff," one said.

The vote puts the federation on record with a specific universal health care plan that would involve payments from individuals, government and business, with government running it to cut administrative costs and bargain prices, just as it now runs Medicare.

It also marks a notable break from the past, as unions helped construct the present system, but watched it become increasingly and overly expensive for workers and companies--even while 47 million people are uninsured and millions more are underinsured.

Companies have dropped health care for workers and retirees, and health care is the #1 battle in bargaining.

And the AFL-CIO's statement marks a new factor in the national debate about health care, as the nation's leading labor federation has now weighed in with a specific proposal, insisting that health care cover all, and rejecting the present system.

"The time for talking about this crisis is past," the federation said. "All families deserve the security of a universal health care system that guarantees access based on need rather than income. Health care is a fundamental human right and an important measure of social justice."

The statement laid down principles of universal coverage, that "government, as the voice of all of us, must play the central role in regulating, financing and providing health care," that coverage "should be accessible through the largest possible groups to ensure coverage" for all, and that everyone-including employers--must share responsibility for health care financing.

It then said that "one concrete plan that meets the test of comprehensive, universal health coverage would build on our nation's successful universal health coverage plan for seniors: Medicare."

"We tried to look for fundamental principles for cost-efficient, high-quality universal coverage, taking the load off employers, while we can create the largest pool" of clients "and have government play the lead role," said Gerard, chair of the federation's Legislation Committee.

"This is a roadmap to universal coverage, and I'm not interested in having Wal-Mart sell insurance so that people can go to a Kaiser Permanente clinic in the store," he added.

After lauding Medicare, which has the federal government provide universal coverage, paid for through payroll taxes, and with seniors having a choice of doctors, the AFL-CIO adds expanding it to all "would require updating and expanding Medicare benefits to fit the working population and children, as well as negotiating prices with physicians and providers that families and the country can afford."

In passing, the federation rejected anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush's scheme to tax workers who get what Bush calls "gold-plated" health insurance. "Until comprehensive national reform is enacted, we will continue to defend health benefits workers have fought and sacrificed to establish over the last 50 years," the federation said. Bush would tax those plans, pushing many companies to dump them.

While the leaders did not endorse any specific bill to change the nation's health care system, AFL-CIO health care policy specialist Gerald Shea said several fit its proposal. They include the single-payer government-run health care system bill (HR 676) by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Medicare-for-all bills crafted by Senate Labor Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and House Health Subcommittee Chairman Pete Stark (D-Calif.).

"Conyers would put single-payer in place, while the others would build on Medicare," Shea said. Those other bills would extend Medicare to the whole country, but still leave a role for private insurers, said Walter and Kay Tillow, who handle communications for the Louisville-based Nurses Professional Organization/All-Unions Committee for Single-Payer Health Care.

That group has convinced at least four unions, including USW, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Plumbers and Pipefitters, to back HR 676. Some 220 other union groups, with the latest being the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, back Conyers' bill. The Tillows said their group welcomes the statement as "a big advance" over the present system, but criticized leaving a role for the private insurers.

Shea said the key to the federation's getting support for extending Medicare to all is to recruit some employers. Employers in the aerospace, telecommunications, steel and paper industries have talked to their unions about backing the Medicare-for-all plan, but nothing has been put in writing.

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