Seniors plan to push health care reform

WASHINGTON — Some 500 delegates to the Alliance for Retired Americans legislative conference convened here June 16-18. The 3 million member strong organization played an important role in helping to elect the nation’s first African American president and is playing an equally important role in passing the president’s major policy reform: health care.

ARA’s new president, Barbara Easterling, fired up the conference by blasting the insurance companies and how “they profit off other people’s suffering.”

Easterling introduced Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who stressed the historical moment: “This is the time. This is the moment. We cannot let this opportunity pass by.”

Sebelius revealed the remarkable statistic that 100,000 Americans die every year based on what happens to them in the hospital! She assured the audience, to great applause, that the president supports a public sector plan in health care reform and opposes taxing health care benefits.

Retirees were heading to Capitol Hill for a lobby day when AFSCME union President Gerald McEntee reminded the delegates that ex-president Bush “tried to steal Social Security and you stopped him. You stopped him cold. He gave us two wars and the biggest gap between rich and poor in American history.”

Now, McEntee said, the enemies of retirees and their families are “insurance companies, big pharma and the right wing pundits,” urging everyone to “go up on that hill and give them hell!”

ARA Executive Director Edward Coyle pointed out that no one is more committed to health care reform in America than retirees. The ARA delegates hammered out necessary parts of any health care reform:

• A public plan;

• All employers must participate by providing insurance or by helping pay for it. (Sometimes called “pay or play.”);

• No taxation of health care benefits;

• Allow the government to negotiate prices with drug companies;

• Stop subsidizing insurance companies through “Medicare Advantage” plans.

“If we don’t get a public plan, you can say good-bye to single-payer forever,” said one workshop coordinator.

Rep Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., was solidly on the side of the retirees and predicted that meaningful health care reform, which was defeated in 1994, will pass in 2009.

Schakowsky and all of the conference speakers said the biggest issue currently facing retirees is whether or not proposed reform bills will include a “public option” as President Obama wants. Federal law prohibits regulation of insurance companies, even on anti-trust issues, so “the only competition that the insurance companies will have is the public plan,” she said.

A timetable is set, but details are still coming out, the lawmaker said. “It will be your work today and your work back home that will determine what’s in the bill,” she said.

Schakowsky also talked about eliminating overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans.

The disastrous Medicare Prescription Drug Part (D) plan of 2003 had allowed insurance companies to administer Medicare funding for their private insurance clients. They “cherry picked” the insurable population, then demanded, and received, increases in the government subsidy for their private programs.

Speakers estimated insurance companies are overcharging at between 12 and 20 percent. Schakowsky said, “It is not a level playing field when they receive 14 percent in overpayments.”

Other boondoggles came out of the Bush-backed 2003 bill, such as the prohibition on negotiating drug prices. The bill requires seniors to pay prices that the drug companies set. The bill also requires seniors to pay all of their drug costs when they fall into the “donut hole” starting at about $2,700 in annual expenses.

Schakowsky, and other speakers like Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa and Communication Workers President Larry Cohen, also spoke about fair trade pacts, housing for seniors, the Employee Free Choice Act and the 2010 elections.

On free choice, Cohen said that the anti-union forces, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are focusing their attention on the Democratic Caucus in the Senate, because Republicans are lined up solidly to vote against even hearing the Employee Free Choice Act.

Democrats, including those who oppose the bill, would have to be just as unified to provide the 60 votes necessary to bring the bill to a vote.

Cohen said, “Right now we don’t have procedural unity among the Democrats.”

Cohen said that 70 other countries have better organizing laws. The United States is isolated in the company of such right-wing-led nations as Myanmar and Saudi Arabia.