Recently, a major new constituency may have enlisted in the struggle for national health legislation. This group is a large, powerful group that is supposed to be totally cynical and ready to fight against, not for, national health legislation that might infringe on its turf. Add to these ingredients the fact that this constituency would not exist without the labor movement.

We’re ralking about union benefit funds, also known as “Taft-Hartley Funds,” named after the 1948 legislation that gave them legal status. (Of course the Taft-Hartley Act is also the infamous anti-labor law that was a direct attack on the left and Communist movements in the labor movement and opened the door for states to enact “Right to Work (for less)” laws.) They are also known as labor-management funds, meaning they are managed jointly by unions and employers.

In fact, there are some labor leaders who unfortunately believe they need these benefit funds to organize workers into unions. Another worry is that they should not give up their hard-fought-for funds in return for a government promise that the federal benefits would be equal to or better than what they already have. But all of this may be changing.

The escalating costs of health care have driven many of these programs to cut benefits, i.e., eliminating spousal coverage, increasing deductibles and other cost-saving measures. So far most increases were primarily in the area of prescription drug prices. That has since changed and now hospitalization and physicians’ costs are going through the roof.

At the recent meeting of the International Federation of Benefit Funds, the major professional organization of benefit fund administrators and trustees, Dr. Victor Fuchs from Stanford University, a health policy leader, was hauled in to promote private-sector health policy. Over 6,000 attendees heard Fuchs’ speech.

In years past, the foundation would make sure to have an anti-national health legislative person to drum up business for the private sector. In past years, these comments were usually accepted as the gospel.

This year the audience had other ideas. When Fuchs made a rather neutral comment on national health legislation, the audience broke into loud applause. This caught Fuchs flatfooted. A few moments later he tried again, this time presenting a very negative view of national health legislative efforts. The audience applauded again, clearly in favor of national health.

Then a little later, he said that we will only get national health legislation when any of the following takes place: war; depression and/or civil unrest.

Well, thanks to George W. Bush, we already have the first two.

Fuchs could have said that the French health system, deemed to be the best in the world by the World Health Organization, utilizes a government authority for financing and available health services; but, in addition, promotes the use of labor-led mutual funds that supplement the federal system.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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