WASHINGTON — During its annual conference here Nov. 12-14, the Universal Health Care Action Network (UHCAN) issued a clarion call to defend Medicaid and Medicare against the privatization threats of George W. Bush and step up the battle to provide health care for 45 million uninsured.
The conference titled “Affordable Health Care for All: Breaking the Political Deadlock” was remarkable for the fightback tone despite the Nov. 2 elections with Bush gaining a second term and stronger Republican majorities in the House and Senate. While every speaker urged defense of existing health care programs, many advocated a stronger fight for pending health care legislation such as HR 676, the “Medicare for All Act,” introduced by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).
Shoshanna Sofaer, professor of health care policy at Baruch College in New York and the director of the Institute of Medicine, told the crowd the challenge is to win the people ideologically to reject Bush’s privatization and “medical savings account” scams. She scorned the “blue state–red state” divide, charging, “Wedge issues were used to benefit the Republicans even though many in the ‘red states’ are locked in tragic situations.”
The movement for universal health care, she said, must reach across this divide, winning people to the idea that health security lies in a system that protects everyone. “Do you do better going it alone or being a member of a big risk pool?” she asked. The privatizers “want to cover who they want to cover,” she added. “All of us in this room share a common assumption that the larger the risk pool, the better it is for everyone. Social insurance! There is something called shared destiny. We all suffer when people are uninsured.”
She urged the crowd to stop bemoaning the election results. “Look at Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and think about what went right.” She quipped, “We can beat ourselves up over Ohio. But as Garrison Keillor said, ‘Republicans are citizens of heaven and should not be permitted to vote on earth.’”
Bush can be stopped
Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), told the crowd they should take pride in helping turn out 56 million voters against Bush. “It was an incredible organizing effort by the kind of people now in this room.” He added, “I have never seen that kind of grassroots organizing.”
Hickey said a CAF exit poll asked voters which issue they view as most important. “Folks said jobs, health care mattered more than terrorism and security. … Neither Kerry nor Bush addressed these issues clearly. Yet Bush claims a mandate for issues like privatizing Social Security.”
Hickey charged that the war in Iraq “was instigated as the key element in securing a second term for Bush” by diverting people’s attention from their vital interests. “People are still very skeptical. People know that George W. Bush is working for a set of corporate interests, whether it is No Child Left Behind and the lack of funding for that or medical savings accounts for the very wealthy. He stands for the corporate agenda against the interests of the vast majority of Americans. … We believe he can be stopped dead in his tracks.”
Unite against cost-shifting
Sally Tyler, a specialist in health care for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, said 1.3 million workers lost their job-based health insurance in 2003 as premiums skyrocketed 13.9 percent. “Cost-shifting is occurring across the board,” she said. “There were 20 major contracts negotiated last year and in every one health care was a major issue.”
She cited the militant strikes by grocery workers in California where health care was the issue. “People tend to see these battles as union battles,” she said. “I would encourage you to see these battles as part of the general struggle for health care. If union health care plans take a hit, there will be a domino effect with attacks on health care in general. Cuts in these safety net programs lead to increased premium costs for all the rest of us.”
Wal-Mart “refuses to provide health benefits as a matter of course,” Tyler said, while encouraging employees to enroll in Medicaid, or other low-income programs provided by the federal and state governments.
In California, she said, it costs taxpayers $32 million annually to provide health care for 10,000 Wal-Mart employees. “This is not a criticism of Medicaid or those state programs, but a criticism of these employers who deny benefits for their workers. Wal-Mart is feeding at the public trough through huge tax cuts and abatements but also from shifting their costs to the public safety net.”
Struggle to save Medicaid
Bill Vaughn, director of government relations for Families USA, charged that the Bush administration’s tax cuts for the rich “have created an economic disaster for us and it is going to cost trillions to fix it.” He held up a Bible. “I’ve been reading the Bible a lot since Nov. 2,” he said to laughter from the audience. “None of those Bush officials have gotten through the Book of Genesis. … Our pharaohs have eaten all the corn.”
He scoffed at Bush claims of a mandate to make his cut taxes permanent and fund the war in Iraq. “You cannot do that without deep cuts in social programs,” he said. “They are going to block- grant Medicaid. They are going to cut Medicaid half a trillion from the 2003 plan. We’re facing a blitzkrieg. … We’ve got to convince six or seven Republican senators by January to say: ‘We’re not going to do this.’ This is the fight of the year.”
Rand Wilson, national organizer of Jobs with Justice, said his grassroots organization “wants to be in the middle of the fight, not standing on the side preaching of health care as a universal right.”
The movement must recognize “flashpoints” of the struggle, he said, by “working together to stop the cost-shifting, standing with nurses and other caregivers in their fight for living wages and dignity, and joining with seniors and disabled people to improve and expand their care.” Referring to HR 676, he added, “Medicare for all is a simple way to build on what is already a single-payer health care system for seniors.”
Ruth Perot, executive director of the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, which focuses on the lack of health care for people of color, said the communities “underserved” by the private, for-profit health care system include “all of us.”
“The U.S. ranks well below England and Japan in delivery of health care, yet we spend three times as much,” she said.
But some people are “more underserved than others: low income, people of color,” she said. “Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities do exist in the 44 million people who are uninsured. Twenty percent of African Americans and 34 percent of Hispanics lack health care coverage.”
Perot continued, “On Nov. 2, an overwhelming 89 percent of African Americans voted for the candidate, who wanted to address those issues. A majority of Hispanic Americans voted for that candidate too. There is a political constituency out there in favor of progressive change. The first goal is universal health care when we talk about reaching communities of color. … We are drawn into the fight when universal health care is part of the agenda. This is a life-and-death matter.”
She cited Census Bureau statistics on the widening gap in life expectancy, with African Americans and Native American Indians suffering, collectively, a 13,134-year deficit compared to 7,000 years for whites because of lack of health care. “A national commitment to universal health coverage is indispensable to eliminating that disparity. Some issues are non-negotiable. … You must involve African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos in this struggle.”
‘A long-term fight’
Rachel DeGolia, UHCAN organizing and operations director, told the World the turnout of several hundred for this conference was the largest in the history of the Cleveland-based group and has “energized” the fight to defend and expand health care.
“This is a long-term fight and advocates and their organizations need to make long-term plans to meet the challenge,” she said in a post-conference e-mail message. “A major attack on Medicaid is coming up very fast (the next few months) and this program, as well as Medicare, are critically important to future prospects for achieving affordable health care for all.”
Tim Wheeler, national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
**(See related story below)
For steelworkers, health crisis hits home
By Denise Winebrenner Edwards
PITTSBURGH — Members of the United Steelworkers of America union represent the largest single organized group in the country who know up-close and personal the impact of sliced-and-diced health care and pensions. The health care crisis is not political rhetoric for hundreds of thousands who spent their lifetimes in the mines, mills and factories. Health care is a daily struggle and a constant worry.
The USWA initiated “Steel Re-Union” in July 2004, with funding from the Stand Up for Steel campaign. The goals include organizing 1 million workers and their families to “fight like hell to get the high quality of accessible health care we are entitled to,” in the words of union President Leo Gerard. By the end of 2004, Re-Union hopes to establish 33 community-based outreach sites. At least 20 are already up and running with volunteer staffing.
The community-based centers, said Ike Gittlen, USWA public policy coordinator, are in the heartland where the union has high membership density.
“Our goal, in light of the elections, is to build a coalition to overcome the president of the United States,” said Gittlen, working on the day before Thanksgiving. “After almost six months, it is clear that we can organize the political power, strong political power.”
Gittlen continued: “There is one issue everybody agrees on, and that is everybody should be covered by health care. The question is who is going to pay for it. We are organizing enough people to fix this crisis. The first step, our biggest effort, is to get people caring about each other again.”
Contrasting the Canadian system of universal health care with the setup in the U.S., Gittlen said that even “owners of the corporations recognize that Canadian companies get an extra $9,000 per worker per year because health care costs are off the bargaining table. In the U.S., companies might settle for cost containment, or at least predictable costs.”
Throughout the presidential election campaign, Steel Re-Union organized meet-ups that attracted hundreds of steelworkers on the issues of health care, pensions and Social Security. In White Oak, Pa., near Pittsburgh, steelworkers and their families jammed the VFW hall for a luncheon meeting in October. Unlike other Re-Union gatherings, most of the steelworkers used to work for U.S. Steel and still have their health care and pensions intact.
“Look what happened to the guys at LTV, Bethlehem, the miners — hey, we aren’t safe,” said retired Clairton coke oven worker Ed Friday. “We have to organize. We can’t put our head in the sand and act like it can’t happen to us. Taking those guys’ pensions, health care — It’s a crime, a crime. We have to stand together.”
Denise Winebrenner Edwards, a member of the PWW editorial board, can be reached at email@example.com.