The Nation’s Health Worker’s Safety

Health care for all needed

By Phil E. Benjamin

New York City is facing an increase in unemployed workers stemming from the World Trade Center crisis. About 120,000 newly unemployed workers will, as a result, face losing health insurance since worker access to health insurance in our country is almost entirely dependent upon employers, either through labor negotiations or directly from the employer. These thousands will be added to the millions in the United States who are already living without health insurance.

National health legislation

In every other industrial country in the world, when natural disasters, like earthquakes, tornadoes and floods, result in the loss of jobs, displaced workers and their families still maintain their full health-care coverage. They do not suffer the fears and anguish of doing without health services because these workers are not tied to their employers for health insurance. Their government provides health services.

There is much talk these days about the importance of providing bereavement services to people who suffered in the World Trade Center disaster. There is heroic work being done by therapists, social workers and others who are tending to the requirements of people in need. Continuation of bereavement therapy is only possible for all workers and their families when there is national health plan providing the services.

The answer to both the bereavement process and the public health crisis is an immediate, emergency national health program that provides all needed health services for anyone who worked at the World Trade Center or worked for an employer who relied on business from the WTC. Take the insurance carriers out of the picture. Their greed would cost us too much.

Congress could do the right thing and pass universal health-care legislative program that covers everyone, regardless if they are employed or not employed. There is no time like the present.

And, since COBRA health benefits – the continuation of health benefits for 18 months following termination of employment – is very expensive, most workers will not be able to afford it. This constitutes a qualitative increase in the already dangerous public health crisis in our country.

Paying premiums not the answer

A few members of Congress are putting forward proposals to deal with the crisis, but the proposals keep the insurance carriers rolling in dollars. Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) proposed that the federal government pay half the premiums of workers laid off as a result of the WTC disaster, but only for 12 months.

Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) proposed a bill that would provide laid-off workers with a tax credit equal to half the cost of any health insurance premium, but with a maximum of only $110 per month per individual and $290 per family.

President Bush’s proposals are so full of loopholes that they are totally useless. Aides to Baucus and Kennedy have said their proposals would cost about $16.5 billion. The price tag should not come as a surprise since it is using taxpayer money to pay the premiums for the greedy for-profit insurance carriers. This solution is no solution.

There is much lip-service being paid to finding jobs for the thousands of displaced hourly workers. The labor movement is pushing Congress hard for action. Coupled with the recession, bordering on depression, a massive jobs program with health benefits is urgently needed.