Nurses, teachers challenge GOP Rep. on health care

Nurses and teachers in Corpus Christi, Texas on July 30 challenged US Representative Blake Farenthold to step outside of his local office and defend his vote to deny health care coverage to millions of Americans.

They also chastised Rep. Farenthold for his implied threat of violence against women senators–Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Shelly Moore Capito–for voting against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

After the US Senate rejected two Republican bills to dismantle Obamacare, Rep. Farenthold singled out the three Republican women among seven Republican senators who voted against one of the two bills.

He said that he would like to settle the score with them “Aaron Burr style,” referencing the 1804 duel between then Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in which Burr killed Hamilton.

Rep. Farenthold voted to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a Republican health care plan that the Congressional Budget Office said would cause 23 million people to lose their health care coverage.

With temperatures reaching 97 degrees on a hot summer afternoon, members of National Nurses United/National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNU/NNOC) and the Corpus Christi American Federation of Teachers rallied outside of Rep. Farenthold’s Corpus Christi office to challenge him on his implied threat and his vote to reduce health care coverage.

Sylvia Higgins, a nurse and a member of NNU/NNOC, challenged him with facts about the impact that his vote for the Republican bill would have had on Texans and demanded that he support a common sense approach to providing health coverage for everyone.

“Currently, 4.3 million Texans are uninsured, and an additional 2.5 million Texans would have lost coverage under the dangerous GOP bill (to repeal Obamacare),” said Higgins. “Now that the GOP bill is effectively dead, any politician who truly represents the people would internalize the real facts about health care and begin advocating for a single-payer-for-all healthcare system—because that’s what our patients deserve.”

Others like a teacher who carried a sign that simply read, “Shame on you Farenthold,” challenged Rep. Farenthold’s character.

Apparently, Rep. Farenthold wasn’t up to the nurses’ and teachers’ challenge.

He said he couldn’t meet with them because he had to be in Moulton, a small town about 140 miles north of Corpus Christi.

Farenthold said that repealing Obamacare care remained one of his top priorities because “Obamacare is hurting the American people, especially those it was intended to help.”

Rep Farenthold is right. People are hurting, especially in Texas, but it’s not because of Obamacare; rather, it’s because of Republican antipathy toward Obamacare.

Texas, which is governed by Republicans, chose not to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and actively disrupted efforts by non-profit groups to help people get health insurance through the federal health insurance exchanges.

As a result, 20 percent of adult Texans still lack health insurance.

Republican health care policy has hurt Texans in other ways as well.

Republican state officials have cut off government funding to Planned Parenthood and enacted laws that resulted in the closure of 31 Planned Parenthood affiliated clinics, most of which were in medically under served areas.

In addition to providing birth control and abortion services, these clinics provided basic health screenings for low-income women.

According to a recent study, among women with a high school education or less who once received examinations for breast cancer at Planned Parenthood clinics, 31 percent fewer are still getting examined.

There’s another health care crisis going on in Texas that is just now starting to get some attention.

The rate of pregnancy related deaths of women in Texas is 35.8 per 100,000. The national average excluding California is 23.8 per 100,000.

Texas leaders have appointed a task force to learn the cause and recommend a remedy for the state’s alarmingly high rate of pregnancy related deaths.

To the chagrin of Texas’ leaders, California may have already answered these questions. California’s pregnancy related death rate is 7.3 per 100,000.

California’s success at reducing pregnancy related deaths is the result of a collective public health initiative funded by the state and federal government and the California Healthcare Foundation.

It should also be noted that only 8 percent of Californians lack health insurance, which makes health care much more accessible in California.

It is unquestionable that Obamacare is a much better approach to health care than the Republican approach, but Obamacare is not without its shortcomings.

The main problem is that 29 million Americans still don’t have health insurance, which is why when people demonstrated in front of Rep. Farenthold’s office, they advocated for a single-payer health care plan that would make health insurance available to everyone.

“We need single payer/Medicare for All, and we need Rep. Farenthold to advocate for it,” said Cynthia Martinez, a nurse and NNU/NNOC member.

Grievance strike hits AT&T West; workers demand a fair contract

Seventeen thousand AT&T West technicians and call center workers returned to work on March 23 after participating in a grievance strike that affected AT&T’s communication services in California and Nevada.

The grievance strike was called by Communication Workers of America (CWA) District 9 to protest the company’s efforts to expand the duties of premise technicians.

Premise technicians install and maintain AT&T’s U-Verse television and internet service, but last July, the company issued a document requiring them to perform work done by higher paid service technicians who maintain and repair telephone and cable lines.

“We went on strike to demonstrate to the country that we will not do more work for less pay, especially when it puts us in a position not to deliver the best possible service,” said Robert Longer, a member of CWA Local 9421 in Sacramento, California.

The strike lasted one day and ended after the company agreed to rescind the document requiring premise technicians to perform expanded job duties.

“Our grievance strike was a success,” read a statement issued by CWA District 9. “Our premise technicians will no longer be required to work outside of the scope of the their duties.”

The scope of premise technicians’ duties has been one of the sticking points keeping AT&T and the union from reach a fair agreement on a new contract.

The union and AT&T West have been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement for more than a year.

The current agreement expired in April 2016, but the two sides have continued to negotiate.

When the company in July attempted to circumvent the bargaining process and unilaterally expanded the scope of premise technician duties, union members filed a number of grievances to prevent the expansion.

The union was negotiating with the company to resolve the grievance, but the negotiations broke down.

In a statement explaining the reason for the strike, the union said that AT&T disrespected the bargaining process and “reneged on an agreement to resolve the (premise technician) dispute without any explanation.”

“We are on strike today because AT&T is hurting us all by violating their bargaining obligations with the union,” said Robinson Paiz, a maintenance splicer from Los Angeles.  “We don’t want to let our customers down, but AT&T left us with no other choice. AT&T needs to get serious and honor its contract with us so we can keep servicing our customers.”

The union and its members are hoping that the grievance strike will make it clear to AT&T that they are serious about negotiating a fair new collective bargaining agreement.

There are other contract issues that have yet to be resolved.

Union members want to keep their health care benefits intact without the cuts proposed by the company; they want the company to hire more workers to deal with the chronic under  staffing; and they want to protect their jobs against offshoring.

AT&T has outsourced thousands of call center jobs abroad to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines.

AT&T recently closed its largest call center in Oakland, leaving those who remain on the job nervous about their futures.

“The fact that AT&T has moved a lot of jobs (abroad) has hurt a lot of us here in the United States,” said one California call center worker. “I talk to my children a lot about Mommy not being employed anymore.”

“When they get rid of the jobs in our communities it affects a lot of other businesses in the communities,” said another California call center worker.

Union members also want the company to hire more workers. “We’re short staffed,” said another AT&T worker.

Short staffing is causing workers to work a lot of forced overtime.

“Forced overtime can happen anytime, and any day,” said another AT&T worker. “You can’t make plans in the evening because you don’t know what time you’re going to get off.”

Forced overtime is also interfering with family life. Workers miss special events like birthday parties for family members and everyday events like spending time with their children.

Short staffing, forced overtime, health care cuts, outsourcing, and the expansion of the scope of premise technicians’ work are all the results of AT&T attempts to cut labor costs.

These cuts aren’t coming at a time when ATT&T is struggling.

In fact, AT&T makes a billion a month in profits and its CEO Randall Stephenson received $28.4 million in compensation for 2016, a 13 percent increase over the previous year.

But the company is getting pressure from its Wall Street investors to reduce labor costs so more of the wealth created by the company’s workers can go to investors.

“While AT&T is extremely profitable, the company has become disconnected from the day to day issues facing workers and customers,” said a statement issued by CWA. “Despite the financial success, the company is asking its workers to do more for less — keeping them from their families with unpredictable overtime, undercutting pay and advancement, offshoring good jobs, and pushing more health care costs onto employees. At the same time, customers are paying increasingly higher bills to AT&T for essential services.”

Nurses urge Senate to reject Price nomination

Warning that health care in the US will deteriorate badly if the Senate confirms the nomination of Rep. Tom Price to lead the US Department of Health and Human Services, National Nurses United (NNU) a union of 185,000 registered nurses, urged the Senate to reject Price’s nomination.

“If confirmed, it is clear that Rep. Price will pursue policies that substantially erode our nation’s health and security – eliminating health coverage, reducing access, shifting more costs to working people and their families, and throwing our most sick and vulnerable fellow Americans at the mercy of the health care industry,” wrote Deborah Burger and Jean Ross, co-presidents of NNU, to members of the Senate Committee on Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions.

Burger and Ross cited Rep. Price’s record of supporting steep cuts to Medicaid, the privatization of Medicare, and his opposition to key features of the Affordable Health Care Act designed to make health care coverage accessible to low- and middle-income workers, who don’t have health care coverage through their employer.

Rep. Price’s vision of what US health care should look like is embodied in a piece of unsuccessful legislation that he sponsored–the Empowering Patients First Act. As leader of the health and human services department, he will be positioned to lead efforts to realize his vision.

His bill was first introduced in 2009 as a possible alternative to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and has been introduced in but not passed by each subsequent session of Congress.

In 2009, the Congressional Budget Office analyzed Price’s bill and determined that ten years after the legislation was enacted 2 million fewer people would have health insurance than before its was enacted.

Under Price’s plan, health care insurance would be too costly for many working class people.

The bill’s main feature is a tax credit for those who purchase health insurance. Unfortunately, the tax credit is insufficient.

The tax credit would be $2000 a year for individuals or $4000 for a married couple. Families with a child or children would receive a tax credit of $500 for each of the first two children.

A family of four then would receive about $400 a month in tax credits to cover health insurance premiums, far short of what it cost to pay for a health care plan health care plan that provides even a minimal amount of protection for families.

Currently under Obamacare, insurance premiums for a silver plan in the state Texas, a plan that pays 70 percent of health care expenses, on average costs $276 a month.

The total cost of that premium is $785, but the family is eligible for federal tax credit worth $509.

If Price’s plan were in effect, that same family would pay $369 a month after receiving the tax credit, a 34 percent increase over the amount that the same family pays under Obamacare.

Price’s plan also would make it more difficult for people with a pre-existing medical condition such as diabetes to get health care coverage.

Currently Obamacare requires insurers to accept customers who have a pre-existing condition. Price’s plan doesn’t. Instead, it would provide the the states financial assistance to help pay for high risk insurance pools through which people with pre-existing conditions could purchase insurance.

But experience shows that insurance purchased through high risk pools is expensive and out of reach for many.

According to a study published by the Center for American Progress in 2008 before Obamacare became law, “We already know that existing state-based high risk pools can’t provide affordable coverage for nearly enough of the medically needy who have no other options.

“High risk pools have been around for over 30 years and currently exist in 35 states, but they only cover about 207,000 Americans. The biggest barrier to enrollment is cost. High risk pools are inevitably expensive because all of the enrollees have medical conditions that could potentially result in costly medical bills.”

There are other barriers to coverage in Price’s legislation. Low-income workers who currently qualify for Medicaid would no longer do so under Price’s plan, and Price’s legislation would reduce payments to hospitals that treat people who are poor and don’t have health care insurance.

Price also supports a practice called “balanced billing,” in which doctors and hospitals bill patients for charges that exceed the amount paid by insurance plans. These charges can be and often are quite expensive.

Medicare currently bans balanced billing, but Price supports lifting this ban.

“(Lifting the ban on balanced billing) would greatly increase provider and physician revenues,” writes Ryan Cooper in The Week, and expose many seniors to “medical debt induced bankruptcy.”

In calling for the Senate to reject Rep. Price’s nomination, the nurses union also called on the country’s leaders to take steps to insure that all Americans have access to health care.

“Instead of rolling back the protections we currently have, NNU has long advocated that we strengthen, improve, and expand our public Medicare system to cover all Americans,” wrote Burger and Ross in their letter to senators. “That is the type of system in place throughout the developed world that is the best, most cost effective way to guarantee health care for all, reduce overall costs, and sharply cut administrative waste that is endemic to private insurance.”

“As nurses know from the patients we care for every day, without health, there is no security. We cannot risk the very real consequences of Rep. Price’s reckless disregard for the health of our patients and our nation,” Burger and Ross concluded.