Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Seniors Plan to Push Health Care Reform

At an historic moment in American history, on June 16, 500 delegates to the Alliance for Retired Americans legislative conference convened at the Washington Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C. The following morning, the first markup for Senator Kennedy’s health care reform would take place in the Congress. ARA Executive Director Edward Coyle pointed out that no one is more committed to health care reform in America than retirees.
In workshops, the retirees began briefing for their visit to Capitol Hill. Elements of acceptable health care reform included:
All employers must participate by providing insurance or by helping pay for it. Sometimes called “pay or play.”
No taxation of health care benefits
Include a public plan as well as insurance companies
Allow the government to negotiate prices with drug companies
Stop subsidizing insurance companies through “Medicare Advantage” plans
Many of the retirees were already wearing hats or stickers that showed their commitment to single-payer health care. Leaders of the ARA said that the public sector plan proposed by President Obama might eventually lead to a single payer plan. “If we don’t get a public plan, you can say goodby to single-payer forever,” said one workshop coordinator from the ARA. The public plan is the big fight. ARA spokespersons said that anti-reform forces say they are for “competition.” Our argument is that if the private plan is so great, then it should certainly be able to compete with the public plan.
One retiree commented, “The dirty little secret is that insurance companies don’t want competition. They abhor it. They want government subsidies.”
Another argument for a public plan is that it is projected to save three times as much money as health care reform without a public plan.
Few details from the plans and proposals in Congress were available. The Kennedy proposal, which includes the elements that retirees need, has already presented a 615 page summar. Those who oppose reform have been the most secretive about their own alternatives.
The Kennedy proposal is rivaled by other Senators in the Finance Committee. There are three different committees in the House of Representatives who might present health care reform plans, beginning in July. All of the House plans are expected to include a public sector plan.
Retirees also support the CLASS Act, S.697 and HR1721, as a small but important step toward a government program for long term care. It is currently almost unaffordable and even dangerous.
At the first plenary session, Washington AFL-CIO leader Joss Williams talked about the “new day” that had arrived with the election of President Obama. Executive Director Coyle credited union retirees with having a big role in the election. The only age group that Obama failed to carry was over 65, but retired union members, with 74% voting for Obama, actually led the entire labor movement in support.
Coyle said that the Alliance now has 3,000,000 members. They are in every state, but thirty states now have their own charters
The ARA’s new President, Barbara Easterling, was presented to the conference. She blasted insurance companies: “I can’t believe how much they profit off other people’s suffering.” Even though voter turnout may get lower, the trend for retirees is upward. Easterling said, “If you win the senior vote, you will probably win the election.”
Easterling presented the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, Kathleen Sebelius, as “Obama’s point person on health reform.” Sebelius stressed the historical moment: “This is the time. This is the moment. We cannot let this opportunity pass by.”
Sebelius revealed the remarkable statistic that 100,000 Americans die every year based on what happens to them in the hospital. “Not what brought them to the hospital, but what happens to them in the hospital!”
She assured the audience, to great applause, that the President supports a public sector plan in health care reform and opposes taxing health care benefits.
AFSCME Union President Gerald McEntee was next. He referred to ex-president Bush as “Commander in Thief. He tried to steal Social Security, and you stopped him. You stopped him cold. He gave us two wars and the biggest gap between rich and poor in American history.”
McEntee enthusiastically supports the retirees in demanding health care reform. He whispered into the microphone, “They want to call it … socialism. Don’t say it too loud.” The word had already come up several times in workshops. McEntee made it clear who our health care enemies are: “Insurance companies, big pharma, and the right wing pundits.” McEntee concluded, “Go up on that hill and give them hell!”
Armed with solid information and reams of statistics, the retirees planned their assault on Congress. Judging from the enthusiasm in the audience, they might have brought torches and pitchforks.
--Jim Lane in Dallas flittle7@yahoo.com

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