Unions join fight to save health care

When the 115th Congress opened, the Republican leadership made it clear that killing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was their first priority.

But killing Obamacare is only their first order of business. Their goal is to change the way that Americans obtain health insurance. If they succeed, Medicare will be privatized, many low-income workers will no longer be eligible for Medicaid, and employee health insurance plans will be greatly diminished.

But workers took their first stand in the battle to save health care on January 15 when tens of thousands of people attended Save Our Health Care rallies held in more than 40 cities across the US.

Labor unions played a key role in organizing the rallies that were sponsored by Our Revolution, the political organization that grew out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

The biggest Save Our Health Care rally took place in Warren, Michigan where 10,000 people braved frigid weather to hear speeches by Sen. Sanders, other elected officials, and Cynthia Estrada, vice president of the United Autoworkers (UAW).

Estrada said that we’re telling Republican leaders who want to gut Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare that “we the people are not going to let that happen.”

Estrada also said that union members would be joining people in the streets to make sure that everybody has health care insurance.

“In the UAW, we have health care, and every day it’s a fight to keep it, but I know that the great UAW members standing over there,” said Estrada pointing to the large contingent of UAW members attending the rally. “Are going to fight for everyone who doesn’t have health care because health care is a right for all.”

National Nurses United members were on hand at rallies in Chicago; Portland, Maine; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles; Sacramento; San Francisco; Fort Lauderdale; Fort Worth; and Washington DC.

“On this day of action we are standing with our elders, our friends, and family, along with many of our elected representatives to say NO to the Republicans’ disastrous proposals,” said Deborah Burger, co-president, National Nurses United. “At this moment of tremendous confusion about the future of health care in the US, nurses are saying, now is the time to move forward with Medicare for all.”

Shortly after the new Congress convened, the Republican controlled Senate and House of Representatives voted for procedural motions that are the first steps toward killing Obamacare, which has provided heath care insurance for 20 million people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

And soon after his inauguration, President Trump signed an Executive Order that the new President hopes will lead to the repeal of Obamacare.

The Republican strategy is to repeal Obamacare but then delay implementation of the repeal until they can figure out how to replace it.

But the Congressional Budget Office reported that doing so could cause 18 million people to lose their health care insurance and cause private health care insurance premiums to increase by as much as 20 percent to 25 percent.

While Obamacare has its problems, it has been a life saver for many like those at the Warren rally who carried signs reading, “KILLING OBAMACARE KILLS PEOPLE LIKE ME.”

For Republicans, killing Obamacare is only the first step toward radically restructuring health care.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Tom Price, the nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, want to privatize Medicare.

Their scheme would do away with single payer, government-run Medicare and replace it government vouchers that seniors would use to purchase individual health insurance plans.

For many if not most seniors, purchasing individual health care policies would lower the quality of the health care that they receive.

Speaker Ryan also wants to deregulate Medicaid and let states make their own rules for who qualifies for Medicaid, which will leave many low-income and elderly Medicaid recipients with no and little health care coverage.

Rep. Price has sponsored legislation that among other things would provide employers with tax incentives to eliminate their employee health insurance plans as a way of encouraging more workers to purchase private health insurance plans.

Addressing the Warren rally, Sen. Sanders told the crowd that the first order of business of the Save Our Health Care movement is to stop the repeal of Obamacare, but the fight for health care for all must go beyond saving Obamacare.

“Our job today is to defend the Affordable Care Act,” said Sanders. “Our job for tomorrow is to create a Medicare for all, a single-payer health care system,” that provides the same high quality of care that seniors receive through Medicare to everyone in the US.


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.

NNU urges support for African health care workers battling Ebola

The UN World Health Organization reports that an unprecedented number of West African health care workers have been infected by the Ebola virus. As of August 25, 240 doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers in the nations hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak have contracted the disease and 120 have died.

In an act of solidarity, National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the US, has initiated a national fund raising effort to provide protective gear to West African health care workers in the frontlines of the battle against the contagious and deadly disease.

National Nurses United executive director Rose Ann DeMoro blamed the failure to contain the Ebola virus on cuts to the public health care systems imposed on developing countries at the center of the Ebola crisis–Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

During the last three decades, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have required these and other developing countries seeking development loans to reduce their investments in public resources such as health care, so that more money could be redirected to private investment.

“Neo-liberal programs in a global economy dominated by international banks and the governments aligned with them that have starved health programs and other public services while shifting resources to transnational corporations and other wealthy interests,” said DeMoro in an opinion column appearing in the Huffington Post.

NNU’s fund raising effort, which is being organized by the Registered Nurses Response Network, a project of the NNU, seeks money to provide expensive protective gear for health care workers treating Ebola patients.

According to the WHO, shortages of protective gear is one of the main reasons that so many health care workers have been infected with Ebola.

“In many cases, medical staff are at risk because no protective equipment is available–not even gloves and face masks,” reads WHO’s report on the dire situation.

Out of the 3,000 people infected by Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, nearly 10 percent have been health care workers.

WHO also said that there are too few staff to deal with the outbreak, causing those who care for Ebola patients to work for long stretches without breaks, which leads to exhaustion, which in turn makes them more prone to mistakes.

In addition to working long hours without sufficient protective gear, some health care workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone have not been paid.

The lack of pay caused some health care workers at the John F. Kennedy hospital in Monrovia, Liberia to go on strike for a short time.

“Health workers have died (fighting Ebola), including medical doctors at … JFK and to have them come to work without food on their table, we think that is pathetic,” said George Williams, secretary-general of the Health Workers Association of Liberia to Reuters.

Williams told Reuters that health care workers at the hospital had gone two months without pay.

Despite threats to their own safety and the lack of pay, health care workers have fought valiantly to turn the tide against this deadly disease, but the crisis continues to grow.

DeMoro writes that in addition to cuts to public health services, other factors are making this epidemic hard to control.

Extreme poverty, which to some extent is the result of austerity policies imposed on the affected nations, and climate change have created conditions that make people more vulnerable to Ebola.

Poverty means that many African don’t have access to adequate health care, and, according to DeMoro, climate change has caused deforestation, which has caused animals that carry the Ebola virus to lose their habitats and has brought them in closer contact with humans.

DeMoro writes that a tax on risky financial transactions, known as the Robin Hood tax, could generate revenue needed to deal with the Ebola crisis and other problems related to it.

“Hundreds of billions of dollars would be raised by wider enactment of the Robin Hood tax, funds that could be used directly to attack under funding of health programs and poverty that contribute to the outbreaks and their rapid spread,” writes DeMoro. “Robin Hood funds would also help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, which also has links to Ebola.”

For now though, DeMoro and other NNU leaders are urging people to show their solidarity with the health care workers of West Africa by making a donation to the fund raising effort for medical protective gear.

Nurses oppose Keystone pipeline citing public health risks

National Nurses United asked supporters to sign the union’s petition urging President Obama to reject approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which the nurses’ union says is a threat to public health.

“There is broad concern about the harmful health effects linked to both the extraction and transport of tar sands, as well as how the pipeline will accelerate the steadily worsening erosion of health we see every day as a result of climate change,” said Jean Ross, co-president of NNU. “Nurses will continue to oppose construction of this project, and call on President Obama to stand with our patients and our communities, not the big oil interests, to reject KXL.”

Meanwhile the Teamsters and building trades unions are urging the President to approve the pipeline’s construction immediately.

Citing a recent report by the US State Department saying that the pipeline’s impact on climate change will be minimal, Sean McGarvey, president of the North American Building Trade Unions, said that there was no longer any excuse to delay the project.

The pipeline will be built by the world’s “safest and most skilled workforce,” who will build the pipeline “in accordance with the strictest environmental and safety standards,” said McGarvey, who pointed out that the pipeline will provide good paying jobs in an industry where unemployment remains above 12 percent.

The US State Department recently released its report on the environmental impact of the pipeline. The report said that the pipeline would not significantly increase greenhouse gases, the cause of climate change.

President Obama said last summer that his decision to approve or disapprove the pipeline would hinge on the findings of the report.

But the nurses’ union was critical of the report saying that it didn’t sufficiently consider the public health impact of the pipeline.

According to the nurses, one of the main problems with the pipeline is that it enables an oil extraction process whose toxic bi-products contaminate drinking water.

The massive amounts of water needed to extract oil from Canadian tar sand becomes contaminated with bitumen, oil, and sand during the process. When this toxic mix is disposed of, it sometimes finds its way into drinking water supplies.

“Communities downstream from the (disposal) ponds have seen spikes in rates of cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism,” said the nurses’ statement about the pipeline. ” In one small community of just 1,200 residents, 100 have already died from cancer.”

Once the oil is extracted from tar sand and is on its way through the pipeline, it will cross over aquifers and rivers that are drinking water sources for communities near the 1,700 mile pipeline. The nurses say pipeline spills, which are inevitable, will pollute this drinking water and point to the public health impact of spills that have already occurred,

In 2010, a tar sands oil pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Minnesota. The diluted bitumen traveled 40 miles down the Kalamazoo River to Morrow Lake. More than a month later, state officials found that half of the residents in communities along the river reported respiratory ailments and other symptoms associated with the spill. In 2011, TransCanada pipeline spills and ruptures occurred in North Dakota and Montana. On March 29, 2013, an Exxon Mobil pipeline with tar sands oil ruptured near Mayflower, Ark. For months after, residents cited persistent health problems, and independent water and air tests have shown elevated levels of contaminants.

Another public health problem created by the pipeline will be increased pollution at refineries, the final destination of the pipeline’s oil.

Refining oil from tar sand is much more difficult and takes longer than refining oil from conventional sources. The extended process will cause more harmful pollutants to be released into the air.

The increased pollution will increase the risk of asthma, heart disease, and premature death for people living near the refineries.

“Nurses care for patients every day who struggle with health crises aggravated by environmental pollution in its many forms,” said Deborah Burger, NNU co-president. “As a society, we need to reduce the effects of environmental factors, including climate change, that are making people sick, and endangering the future for our children. That’s why we oppose the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Labor, other activists rally for Robin Hood Tax

About 2,000 labor, social justice, and other activists on April 20 rallied in Washington DC urging Congress to pass HR 1579, the Inclusive Prosperity Act by Rep. Keith Ellison. The Inclusive Prosperity Act would establish a small tax on financial transactions that would generate billions of dollars in new revenue that could be invested in public projects that rebuild America and create millions of new jobs. The financial transaction tax is known the Robin Hood Tax.

“In the world beyond the Beltway, people are still hurting. What they care about is not the debt ceiling or the fiscal cliff or the budget deficit. What they care about is the job deficit, the health care deficit, the housing deficit, the retirement deficit,” said Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United. “What people don’t need is more austerity, like more cuts, to Social Security, and other programs that help people. That’s why nurses for two years have been campaigning across the country for more revenue for our cities, our communities, our patients with a tax on Wall Street speculation.”

“Americans are fed up with the austerity agenda that leaves corporations with record low tax rates,” said George Goehl, executive director, National People’s Action. “We know where the money is. It’s not in grandma’s Social Security check, it’s not in our children’s classroom, and it’s not in the pockets of working class families. It’s on Wall Street, and it’s time for President Obama and Secretary Lew to step up to the plate and support everyday Americans by supporting the Robin Hood Tax.”

The Robin Hood Tax proposed by HR 1579 would be a small sales tax on speculative financial trades–0.5 percent on stock trades and a lesser percentage on other speculative activity. While the amount of the tax is low, it has the potential to recapture a substantial amount of wealth that hard working people helped create in the first place.

University of Massachusetts-Amherst economist Robert  Pollin estimates that the Robin Hood Tax could generate as much as $300 billion a year in new revenue.

“Everyone shopping on Main Street today pays sales taxes when they buy things,” said Pollin.  “It’s time for Wall Street traders to face up to similar obligations.”

The bill targets the wealthiest financial speculators and exempts households whose gross adjusted income is $75,000 or less.

If enacted, the Robin Hood Tax would discourage excessive speculation, the primary cause of the 2008 worldwide economic collapse that cost millions of people around the world their jobs and livelihood.

“Wall Street speculation has become a house of cards, a game of  computer-driven bets on bets, far removed from real-world investments in real economic activity,” wrote Ralph Nader in a statement of support for Ellison’s bill.

“High-frequency trades are carried out at ‘blinding speeds,'” said  Wallace Turbeville, former Goldman Sachs investment banker and a senior  fellow at Demos. “To the point where 50, 60 or 70 percent are done by  ‘robo-traders.’ This does not give value to the economy, it damages it.”

An analysis of the bill prepared by Rep. Ellison says that the Robin Hood Tax would make Wall Street begin to repay its debt to working people who bailed out the bankers when their speculative trades cratered the economy.

“The global crisis cost Americans $19 trillion in lost wealth,” reads the analysis. “American citizens provided the money to stabilize the financial  sector. . . . The global financial crisis, along with wars, unabated and  unaddressed climate change, unsustainable tax cuts, and a continuing  unemployment crisis, if unaddressed, will deprive a generation of a  meaningful role in the larger economy.”

The European Commission has proposed a financial transaction tax similar to the one proposed by Ellison. Eleven European countries have committed to adopting the tax proposed by the commission–Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Estonia.

On Friday, George Osborne the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that he would take court action to block other European countries from implementing their financial transaction tax.

Owen Tudor, spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign in the UK, called Osborne’s action hypocritical because the UK itself has a financial transaction tax called the stamp duty that generates about $13 billion a year.

“This isn’t about defending British interests against Europe,” said Tudor to the Guardian. “It’s about defending one rather rich square mile (London’s financial district) against the wishes of people in Britain and across Europe. Not content with letting our banks off scot-free, Osborne now wants to prevent European countries from making financial sectors pay to repair the damage done by the financial crisis.”