State workers: Keep health and human services accessible

State employees in Missouri and Texas are building movements to protect health and human services and keep them accessible.

In Missouri, the Missouri State Workers Union CWA 6355 (MSWU) is building a Turn the Tide movement that includes Family Support Division union members and the people they serve to protect access to health and human services in the state.

In Texas, members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA 6186 have started a petition drive calling for more staffing at health and human service eligibility offices to keep pace with increased caseload. The petition also calls for a pay raise that would help retain qualified staff, the key to ensuring that applications for services are processed quickly and accurately.

Missouri has developed a plan for reorganizing the application process for health and human services such as food stamps and Medicaid.

The plan, whose implementation began in July, will take years to implement fully, but the impact on people who depend on these services is already being felt.

The St Louis Post Dispatch reports that since implementation began in July, the state’s food stamp enrollment has dropped by 3.3 percent, one of the largest drops in food stamp enrollment in the US.

The Post Dispatch also reports that one of the main reasons for the drop in enrollment is the increase in the number of denials, many of which are caused by a problem with the reorganization plan.

The reorganization plan will eventually do away with local Family Support Division (FSD) offices where people meet face to face with a knowledgeable caseworker who can assist the applicant with the complicated application. At the face to face meeting, the worker can explain the application process and tell the applicant what documents are needed to complete the process.

Where the reorganization plan has been implemented, applicants are left on their own to complete the application. After completing the application, the applicant submits it to a centralized processing center and is told to wait for a follow up call.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Kyonna Belton, a food stamp applicant to the Post Dispatch . “They say to fill out your piece of paper and leave and they’ll call you. Then you get this (notice), saying you missed something you don’t know about.”

At a community meeting in Overland, Missouri, Holly Roe, an FSD caseworker described the impact that the reorganization is having on her clients.

“What we’re seeing is an atrocity, she said as reported by the Post Dispatch. “It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”

Roe said that the reorganization has been especially hard on disabled people and the elderly.

The community meeting, which was organized by Jobs with Justice and the Missouri State Workers Union, was attended by FSD employees, health and human service recipients, and social welfare activists.

MSWU Turn the Tide movement had some successes. By mobilizing workers and the people they serve, the union has gotten FSD to start holding public hearings on the reorganization plan and to open discussions with union representatives on the plan.

Before, FSD had said that the reorganization plan was  a done deal and that there would be no discussions with workers and no chance for the public to give input.

FSD has also been forced to move back some of its more aggressive implementation deadlines.

In Texas, employees at the Health and Human Service Commission (HHSC) who process applications for health and human services have seen a surge in case work.

Last year, the state canceled a Children’s Health Insurance Program contract with Maximus and turned the work over to state employees.

By canceling the contract, the state saved $315 million but didn’t use any of that money to increase staffing to handle the increase in work.

Not only do HHSC workers have to process more case, but they have to correct errors on thousands of cases received from Maximus.

To make matters worse, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has increased the number of cases that must be reviewed for Medicaid eligibility.

The result is a backlog of  114,000 cases–that’s 114,000 people whose access to vital health services has been delayed.

The petition drive is aimed at forcing HHSC leadership and the Legislature to fund more positions and to provide raises that keep highly qualified workers on the job.

TSEU organizers will have copies of the petition when they visit HHSC eligibility offices. The union is asking members to take copies of the petition and get fellow workers to sign it.

The petition drive will also be an opportunity for union members to talk to non-members about why they should join the union.

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Sen. Sanders: Fix the Debt plan is “class warfare.”

Corporate leaders this week lobbied Congress to lower the nation’s debt by reducing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits. One of those corporate executives was Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, who told CBS that US workers need to lower their expectations about retirement security and accept cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

US Senator Bernie Sanders, who opposes any cuts to the nation’s safety net programs, said that Blankfein’s call for cuts is another example of class warfare waged by corporate America and Wall Street against working America.

“Think about the arrogance of these guys on Wall Street who were bailed out by the middle class of this country when their greed and recklessness nearly destroyed the financial system,” said Sanders. “And now they come to Capitol Hill to lecture Congress and the American people about the need to cut programs for working people. This is what class warfare is all about.”

Blankfein and about 80 other corporate executives have signed on to a campaign called Fix the Debt, another one of Blackstone private equity group’s founder Peter G. Peterson’s debt reduction lobbying organizations.

As negotiations between President Obama and Republican congressional leaders on a debt reduction deal got underway, Blankfein and other corporate leaders who belong to Fix the Debt began lobbying members of Congress and taking their message to media outlets.

Fix the Debt has been circumspect about specific safety net cuts that it supports, saying only that benefit levels for all safety net programs should be on the table when negotiations over debt reduction take place.

Blankfein, however, was a bit more forthcoming when he told CBS’ Scott Pelley that the eligibility age for Social Security should be raised and benefits for health programs that help the elderly, the disabled, and low-income workers should be lowered. He also suggested that Social Security’s cost of living raises should be lowered.

In addition to lowering safety net benefits, Fix the Debt wants to fix the debt by reducing taxes, especially taxes on the wealthy.

It wants to preserve the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire in January. These tax cuts, enacted early during the administration of President Bush, have primarily benefited the wealthy. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, America’s richest 1 percent received on average an extra $66,384 in 2011 because of the Bush tax cuts. In the same year, the average US income was $58,506.

Blankfein and other members of Fix the Debt also want to reduce the highest marginal tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent and to exempt corporations from paying taxes on foreign earnings that are returned to the US as profits. That exemption would mean a windfall of as much as $134 billion for 63 corporations whose CEOs have signed on to Fix the Debt campaign.

While Fix the Debt’s corporate leaders seek to reduce the federal debt by feathering their own nests with tax cuts and making retirement more precarious for the rest of us, their own retirement isn’t just secure; it’s opulent.

The Institute of Policy Studies reports that the average retirement assets of the 71 Fix the Debt CEOs whose companies are publicly held is $9.1 million.

Fifty-four of them participate in their company’s retirement program and have collective retirement assets worth $644 million, or more than $12 million per CEO, enough to generate a monthly pension payment of more than $65,000 for the rest of their lives.

The Fix the Debt CEO with the most pension assets is David Cote of Honeywell. His pension is worth $36 million and his deferred compensation $41.9 million, for a total of $77.9 million.

Blankfein doesn’t fare as well. His pension is worth only $30,000, and his deferred compensation $11.8 million, giving him a total retirement package of $11.8 million.

Meanwhile IPS reports that to generate an annual retirement income of $25,000 a year not including Social Security, a worker would need to have $500,000 worth of savings, but 34 percent of US workers have no retirement assets of any kind.

And the outlook will be bleaker in the not so distant future because more workers will have to depend on Social Security, whose average monthly benefit is only $1,237, for either their primary or only source of income during their retirement. Nearly half of all private sector workers in their fifties, 44 percent, have neither a traditional defined benefit pension nor a 401(k) type savings plan.

Only 20 percent of the private sector workforce is covered by a traditional pension, down from 83 percent in 1980. While 84 percent of public sector workers are covered by traditional pensions, 25 percent will receive no Social Security benefit because they don’t contribute to Social Security.

Since 2009, one year after the Great Recession began, 35 states have reduced pension benefits for public sector workers.

Union members mobilize to protect safety net

Union members joined progressive allies on November 8 at more than 100 local protests against possible cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The proposed cuts to three of the nation’s most popular safety net programs are on the table as President Obama and Republican Congressional leaders begin negotiations on debt reduction legislation that could be enacted before the current lame duck Congress adjourns in December.

Opponents of the safety net programs, including corporate officers and Wall Street insiders, have insisted that any new budget deal must include cuts to the safety net. The Congressional Progressive Caucus reports that these CEOs and private equity owners have financed “a $30 million lobbying effort to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid before this Congress goes home for the holidays.”

In response, the AFL-CIO and progressive groups have initiated a grassroots mobilization effort to oppose the cuts. The November 8 actions kicked off the mobilization campaign.

One of these actions took place in Cincinnati, where protestors gathered in front of the local office of US Sen. Rob Portman for a press conference. At the press conference, a young woman, whose son is disabled, described her son’s Medicaid benefits as a lifeline for her family.

In Milwaukee, the demonstrators attended a forum on the proposed cuts sponsored by US Rep. Gwen Moore. At the forum,  IAM member Brad Esson described the importance of Social Security.

“I’ve spent my entire life working hard to pay the bills for myself and my family,” Esson said. “I believe that every person deserves the chance to retire in dignity. Shame on any congressperson that does not share that core American belief.”

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO said that Thursday’s actions were designed “to hold elected leaders accountable.”

Trumka referred to the results of exit polling during the Presidential elections that show broad support for maintaining the safety net. A survey conducted by Hart Associates at polls during Tuesday’s election found that 73 percent of those polled think protecting Social Security and Medicare is more important than reducing the deficit and 64 percent favored raising taxes on the rich rather than cutting benefits

“The people advocating for benefit cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are the same folks who want to cut taxes for the richest 2 percent,” Trumka said. “With working families across the country still struggling, we can’t afford to pay for any more tax breaks for those who need them the least.”

Among those who have helped finance the lobbying effort to scale back the nation’s safety net is billionaire Pete Peterson, cofounder of the Blackstone Group, one the world’s largest private equity firms.

According to Bill Black, an economist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One, Peterson’s foundation, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, has been funding a media campaign to press “the false meme that the safety net is unsustainable and a threat to the nation.”

The foundation has also helped finance a lobbying group called the Third Way, which represents businesses and individuals aligned with what Black calls the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party.

The Third Way, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, The Concord Coalition, and New America Foundation are all front groups for Wall Street insiders like Peterson that have been conducting an intense lobbying effort to reduce Social Security, Medicare, and Medicare.

Their hope is that reduced benefits will erode support for safety net programs and make their privatization easier. Black describes the proposed cuts as “the opening wedge of efforts to unravel the safety net.”

James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin, writing for Salon.com says that leaders of the finance industry have long looked on the payroll taxes that support Social Security and Medicare as giant revenue streams that should be diverted to private interests like hedge funds, private equity companies, and insurance companies.

They also see these benefits as a public good that undermine the foundation of market principles that have served them so well.

“Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the main way ordinary Americans connect to their federal government,” writes Galbraith. “They have made a vast change in family life, unburdening the young of their parents and ensuring that every working person contributes whether they have parents, dependents, survivors or disabled of their own to look after. These programs do this work seamlessly, for next to nothing; their managers earn civil service salaries and the checks arrive on time. For the private competition, this is intolerable; the model is a threat to free markets and must be destroyed.”

Texans demand health care coverage for uninsured

About 500 people from all over Texas on Friday, September 21 converged on Austin and marched into the State Capitol to ask Gov. Rick Perry why he rejected federal funding that would have expanded Medicaid access to two million Texans.

Before the demonstrators entered the Capitol,  Durrel Douglas of the Texas Organizing Project, explained what they wanted to hear from Gov. Perry.

“We want to know: if you’re turning away this option, what is your plan?” asked Douglas “And how do you plan to fill this gaping hole, where there are millions of people who don’t have health care? Because throwing two million Texans under the bus is not the way to go.”

The federal funds that Gov. Perry has rejected were made available through the Affordable Care Act, which among other things provides federal funding to expand Medicaid to low-income working people. State participation is voluntary, and Gov. Perry said that Texas will not participate.

One of those people affected by Gov. Perry’s decision is Gladys Vasquez, a home health care worker in Houston who makes $9 an hour–not enough to be able to afford health insurance but too much to qualify for Medicaid.

“I am working 45 or 50 hours a week, and when I get sick, I don’t like to see the doctor, because if I don’t die from the sickness, I die when I see the bill for the doctor,” Vasquez said.

About one-quarter of Texas’ 25 million residents lack health insurance, the highest rate among all 50 states.

A study commissioned by the Methodist Healthcare Ministries in South Texas concludes that expanding Medicaid as proposed by the Affordable Care Act would reduce the number of uncovered Texans by half.

Gov. Perry said that it would cost too much to expand Medicaid to low-income working people;  however,  the federal government pays the full cost of the expansion for three years. After that, the state’s share would be 10 percent.

“When you have a governor of a state that has the worst health care in the nation, that tells Gladys Vasquez, ‘I’m sorry, these options that would expand health care for my state: I don’t want them, for my political reasons. You’re on your own’. That’s insensitive, illogical, not fair,” Douglas said.

The demonstrators had planned to confront Perry in his office and ask him directly why he was throwing so many Texans under the bus. However, after they entered his office, they were told by a Department of Public Safety officer that Gov. Perry was not available because he doesn’t work on Friday’s.

The demonstrators, nevertheless, left their message with his staff and regrouped at the nearby headquarters of the Texas AFL-CIO.

The demonstrators included community activists from the Texas Organizing Project, Good Jobs = Great Houston, disability advocates including members of ADAPT and Texas Adults with Autism and Intellectual Disabilities, and union members from SEIU, the Texas State Employees Union/CWA Local 6186, IBEW, the state AFL-CIO and others.

After regrouping at the state AFL-CIO building, the demonstrators marched about seven blocks to the University of Texas campus where Gov. Perry was scheduled to deliver a speech.

Demonstrators gathered at the entrance of the conference center where the governor was planning to speak and chanted, “Perry makes me sick” and “health care now.”

“I’m happy that (Gov. Perry) has a good life and that he has everything made, and you know, where he’s at and where he’s from,” said Mayra Hurtado of Dallas to KERA. “But what about all these other people out here, the Texans and everybody who’s surviving barely on a day-to-day basis? What about us?”