LANSING, Mich. – Nearly 1,000 union retirees and seniors gathered here May 28 to protest a scheme to privatize Blue Cross/Blue Shield (BCBS). Republican state legislators and lame duck Republican governor John Engler are pushing for privatization of the insurance company.

BCBS is a public, non-profit entity whose regulatory oversight rests in the Michigan legislature. An independent licensee of the Blue Cross Association, it has labor representatives on its board of directors. BCBS provides health insurance for 60 percent of Michigan residents and, by law, cannot refuse service to even the poorest resident. But with all of this, 1.2 million Michigan residents, of whom 200,000 are children, have no health insurance.

Sam Loggans, a board member of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 735 retirees’ organization, told the World, “They [BCBS] have accumulated a $1.3 billion fund. “Loggans suggested that the privatization plan would give corporations and their stockholders access to that money and it would be used to pay debts, raise executive salaries or increase earnings for shareholders, rather than providing health care for BCBS customers.

“People will pay five times more for prescription drugs,” Loggans added. “They’ll have to raise costs to ensure that the shareholders will realize a profit. And several hundred thousand retirees will be left out in the cold. The Republicans with Engler are here to privatize. We are here to stop this!”

Retirees from the UAW, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees joined members of the Michigan Chapter of the National Council of Senior Citizens, the Alliance of Retired Americans and the Gray Panthers to protest the privatization plot.

One strategy included in the Republican plan is to eliminate people from the BCBS board of directors who oppose privatization. Ray Bailey, first vice president of the UAW Region 1-A Retirees Council, said, “We now have someone representing workers’ interests on the board. They are trying to eliminate labors’ representatives.”

UAW Vice President Richard Shoemaker joined others in denouncing the plan. “We are opposed to any legislation that will ultimately facilitate an out-of-state for-profit insurance company that has no loyalty to Michigan retirees to take over our health insurance company,” Shoemaker said.

The right-wing privatization plan is “anti-worker, anti-senior and pro-profit,” Shoemaker argued. The privatization law would remove democratic control over who controls the company, over insurance regulatory bodies and invest the right-wing insurance commissioner’s office with far too much power.

Shoemaker urged the crowd to oppose any Republican or Democrat who favored privatization and called upon Michigan retirees to demand national health insurance under a single payer plan instead of the “profitizing” scheme of the ultra-right.

Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), now the Democratic candidate for governor, said privatizing BCBS will result in “cancellation of insurance or raising premiums” for most Michigan residents on the plan.

Bonior promised that a good government would buy prescription drugs in bulk, force pharmaceuticals to compete and provide for everyone who needs prescription drugs. “We need to break the backs of the pharmaceutical companies,” he added, “instead of the backs of working people and seniors.”

State House Democratic leader Buzz Thomas remarked that “it is a shame that any politician wants to take away anyone’s healthcare.”

Other speakers included Mark Gaffney of the Michigan State AFL-CIO and Phil Thompson of SEIU.

Herb Wibert, president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Council of Senior Citizens and Detroit Gray Panther Chair Ethel Schwartz, urged people to “make the issue known.” Schwartz added, “We hope to build a mass movement strong enough so that they can’t take away what is really ours.”

Lasker Smith contributed to this article.
The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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