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For three hours before the formal opening of their annual legislative conference yesterday, members of the Alliance for Retired Americans got down to business by taking part in workshops on health care reform and Social Security. They will be joined by speakers such as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

Throughout the June 15-18 conference in Washington, D.C., delegates and many high-level officials and union leaders will discuss the best solutions to the nation’s health care crisis and develop strategies to protect and strengthen Social Security.

In her opening address, Alliance President Barbara Easterling said seniors are in a unique position to influence the debate on health care. It is important for seniors to define the health care issue for Congress and the American people, Easterling said.

‘Too many debates in this town make your eyes glaze over. People try to bury you in buzzwords and jargon, in statistics and sound bites. They do this so you won’t notice their top-dollar lobbyists sneaking around the back corridors of the Capitol.

‘We must make this year’s health care debate different. It must be a debate about values—about how our country will never be a just society until every American has access to quality, affordable health care.’

On Wednesday, delegates will visit Capitol Hill where they will tell their elected representatives that the nation must have affordable, universal health care and that they must protect and strengthen Social Security.

“We must tell our elected officials what is really happening back home,” Easterling said.

‘We must shine a bright light into the dark corners that the drug and insurance companies don’t want us to see. In other words, we must do what we do best — tell people our stories.’

Easterling also outlined the Alliance’s agenda for health care reform:

* Allow Medicare to negotiate volume discounts with drug manufacturers. Veterans Affairs does this, and its prescriptions cost 58 percent less.
* End wasteful taxpayer subsidies to private insurance companies that run Medicare Advantage programs at a cost nearly 20 percent higher than Medicare.
* Provide early retirees the option to purchase Medicare coverage. Many of the 5.1 million Americans between age 55 and 64 who lack health insurance are victims of mass layoffs.
* Create a public insurance program to help families afford the cost of long-term care.
* Pass the Employee Free Choice Act to help workers negotiate for higher wages and health care and retirement benefits. We must tell the story of how it was only through collective bargaining that we were able to support our families and have a decent retirement.

Easterling warned delegates not to forget about the battle over Social Security. Calling it “the best anti-poverty program in the history of this country,” she reminded the delegates that in these difficult economic times Social Security is needed more than ever.

‘We must tell people no privatization, no way, no how.’

Alliance Secretary-Treasurer Ruben Burks, a retired member of the UAW, said the problems facing the auto industry and the nation are connected.

‘Instead of creating universal health care, we have let the big drug and insurance companies do whatever they want, charge whatever they want and discriminate against whomever they want.

‘Our nation’s manufacturing base has crumbled. Our tax and trade policies have actually encouraged big companies to send jobs overseas.

‘We have let the Wal-Marts and the Wall Streets of the world run roughshod over our nation’s labor laws. We have learned the hard way that when the ability to form a union gets taken away, there will not be much left of the middle class in this country.’

‘This is a time for our nation to come together,’ Burks said.

‘In times this tough, we have to stay true to our values. Stay true to the values that guided our generation through some pretty tough fights — building strong unions, growing the middle class and tearing down the walls of hatred and discrimination.’

Union leaders who will speak to delegates include AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger, Teamsters President James Hoffa and former Alliance President George Kourpias. In addition, Alan Cohen, chief counselor for Social Security for the Senate Finance Committee, and Nate Loewentheil, executive director of the Roosevelt Institution, are slated to speak.

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