The AFL-CIO Executive council voted unanimously at its March 6 meeting in Las Vegas to endorse universal national health care coverage for all Americans under a plan in which government plays a central role in regulating, financing and providing that care.

The move by leaders of some of the nation’s biggest unions, ranging from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME) on the one hand to the building trades on the other, is unprecedented in the history of the U.S. labor movement.

Under the union backed plan, the government, as the administrator, would act as it does now with Medicare to bargain prices down, in contrast to the current health care system which has driven costs up for the insured while leaving 47 million uninsured and many millions more under-insured.

The move by the AFL-CIO comes as companies across the U.S. are dropping health care for workers and as many other companies are trying to force their employees to pay ever larger percentages of their health care costs.

The move also comes at a time when the American people are expressing their readiness for radical overhaul of the nation’s health care system In a New York Times/CBS poll last week, clear majorities indicated backing for national, government-run health insurance and even expressed willingness to pay higher taxes for it.

“The time for talking about this crisis is past,” the resolution said, adding “all families deserve the security of a universal health care system that guarantees access based on need rather than on income. Health care is a fundamental human right.”

Gerald Shea, AFL-CIO health care policy specialist, said the resolution was “designed to address the major shortcomings in our current health care system. Careful consideration was given to come up with a plan that would cover the largest possible number of people, and in order to cut costs, have the government play the leading role.”

He cited Medicare, “in which the government provides coverage paid for out of payroll taxes,” and said, “We can build on this by taking Medicare benefits and by updating and expanding them so that they fit the needs of the whole working [age] population and children. Under this plan the government would negotiate prices with physicians and providers that are affordable.”

Also at its March 6 meeting the AFL-CIO Executive Council rebuked President Bush for including in his recent health care proposals a plan to tax what the president called “gold plated health insurance enjoyed by many in this country.”

“Until comprehensive national reform is enacted, we will continue to defend health benefits workers have fought and sacrificed to establish over the last 50 years,” the AFL-CIO said.

“The Bush plan,” Shea said, “would be used as an excuse by companies to dump any decent health care plans that they might now have.”

The Council also rejected new mandatory insurance schemes. “Universal health care does not mean mandating that everyone must buy a health insurance policy and then handing them the bills,” the statement said.

The Executive Council did not endorse a specific bill that would overhaul the nation’s health care system. Shea said, however, that HR 676, a bill sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), would “more than accomplish what the unions want.” The Conyers bill provides for a single payer, government-run health care system.

Shea also praised other bills pending in the House and Senate.

But, said Kay Tillow, communications director for the Nurses Professional Organization/All Unions Committee for Single Payer Health Care, “those other bills would extend Medicare to the whole country, but still leave a role for private insurers.”

Her group has been instrumental in winning support for the HR 676 Conyers bill by numerous unions including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the United Steel Workers, the Plumbers and the Pipefitters. More than 200 other union groups including the Wisconsin AFL-CIO now back the Conyers bill.

Tillow described the AFL-CIO initiative on universal health care as “a big advance over the present health care system,” but said private insurers should be eliminated since they drive up costs.

She explained why private health insurers must be eliminated, as they are in the Conyers bill. “The profits made by private insurers amount to $300 billion annually. If you eliminate them, you have that much more money to do what has to be done.

“The second reason for eliminating private insurers,” she said, “is that they interfere with care. They stipulate types of care, medications, therapies, and time limits they have no business stipulating. They make decisions that should be made by doctors and their patients.”

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