Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

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No One Should Have to Bargain For Health Care

Friday, October 11th, 2019

Negin OwliaeiNearly 50,000 members of the United Auto Workers are on strike, demanding that General Motors pay them their fair share of the billions in profits the company raked in last year.

The response from General Motors was shocking. The automaker, which accepted billions in government bailouts during the last recession, cut off its payment of insurance premiums for the striking workers.

As the news broke, former Vice President Joe Biden was at an AFL-CIO event, campaigning against a single-payer Medicare for All plan that would replace employer-provided insurance. “You’ve broken your neck to get it,” Biden told the crowd. “You’ve given up wages to keep it. And no plan should be able to take it away.”

But what if that’s actually the problem? Why should union workers — or anyone — be breaking their necks to get health care, a basic human right?

Health care has been a constant subject of debate among Democratic presidential candidates. Biden and others have argued that a single-payer system would be unfair to union workers who’ve taken pay cuts in exchange for better health care plans.

But, as GM showed, our current system turns health coverage into leverage for employers. What could unions could fight for if they didn’t have to constantly play defense against employers trying to gut their health care?

If we already had Medicare for All, the United Auto Workers could be using their collective power to fight for higher wages and better benefits. Instead, GM gets to use the health of its employees as a bargaining chip.

Auto workers aren’t the only union workers fighting for health coverage.

West Virginia teachers kicked off a strike wave last year thanks, in large part, to their own fight over insurance. The state offered educators two options: use a fitness-tracking app that forced them to earn a certain number of fitness points, or watch their premiums rise. They chose to strike instead.

Meanwhile, Americans already lose their health insurance all the time. That’s actually one of the biggest problems with the health care system as it stands.

Tying health care to employment is a terrible idea. In addition to failing anyone without a full-time job, it forces people to stay in bad positions just to keep their coverage. And when workers lose their jobs, they lose their insurance too.

That wouldn’t happen under Medicare for All, which would allow workers to make decisions about leaving a job or working part-time without panicking over their insurance coverage.

Then there’s the cost.

Health insurance alone makes up, on average, 8 percent of total wages and benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But workers are seeing their share of the costs rise at a higher rate than their wages. They’re getting stuck with a larger chunk than ever before.

Data shows that this burden falls heaviest on low-wage workers, who are already forced to spend a much higher share of their income on extra costs like premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.

By contrast, the Medicare for All plan now before Congress would cover all medically necessary services without co-pays and deductibles — an advantage critics like Biden rarely address.

Right now, the U.S. spends about two times as much as other high-income countries on health care, only to have poorer health outcomes. It’s obvious that the current system isn’t working — for union workers, or for anyone else.

No one should have to bargain for a human right.

This article was originally printed on OurFuture on October 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Negin Owliaei is an Inequality Editor and Researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies. Before joining IPS, she worked as a journalist and digital producer at Al Jazeera Media Network, where she covered social movements and the internet for the award-winning program The Stream. Negin graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in International Studies and English.

What’s Happening to Your Health Care: 3 Things to Know Right Now

Friday, February 17th, 2017

There is definitely lots of talk about how President Donald Trump and Congress are planning to make major changes to Americans’ health benefits. That’s because Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have said that repealing the Affordable Care Act is one of their top priorities. Although it is not clear when they will act or exactly what they will do, here are three things to know right now:

1. Your health benefits are at risk, no matter where you get them:

  • Medicare: A straight-up repeal of the ACA would eliminate some Medicare benefits by reinstating the full Medicare prescription drug donut hole and taking away free preventive care. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is still pushing his plan to turn Medicare into a voucher system, meaning benefits would no longer be guaranteed and health costs for seniors and people with disabilities would go up dramatically.
  • Workplace Health Benefits: Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the powerful chairman of the tax writing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, wants to tax part of the cost of workplace health benefits by including the cost in working people’s taxable income. So does the person Trump hired to be in charge of health care, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. If you get your health benefits on the job, this will raise your taxes and lead to even higher deductibles and co-pays. Some employers could even cancel their health plans in response.
  • Health Insurance You Buy Yourself: Most media coverage is focused on what impact repeal of the ACA will have on the approximately 10 million people who now buy individual health coverage through the ACA’s health insurance marketplaces, often with the help of federal tax credits. A straight-up repeal of the ACA would not just take away the tax credits that help people buy health insurance. Full repeal also would eliminate the ACA’s protections that require insurance companies to treat people fairly, to give them meaningful insurance without tricks and traps, and not to discriminate against anyone because they have a pre-existing condition or even because of their gender.
  • Medicaid: Medicaid is the health plan run by states with significant federal funding that enables 74 million people to get the medical care they need. One-in-three kids in the United States get their health coverage from Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan. Millions of seniors and people of all ages with disabilities also count on Medicaid for nursing home care and the long-term supports and services that allow them to live independently in their homes and communities. A straight-up repeal of the ACA would take health coverage away from some 11 million people who now have benefits because the ACA allowed states to expand Medicaid. Trump and Republican leaders in Congress also want to cut Medicaid for everyone who receives it by imposing new limited caps on what the federal government will contribute, even if the cost of health care keeps going up much faster than prices in the rest of the economy. That will shift costs onto states and likely force cuts in benefits.

2. People are speaking up, and that’s having an impact on Washington: Lots of people are showing up to meet with their members of Congress about health care and to let them know just how important it is to them personally. Many people are asking their members of Congress tough questions. For example, check out this article about a Tennessee high school teacher who attended a town hall and watch the video showing her tough question for Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), Meet the Teacher Whose Powerful, Christian Defense of Obamacare Made a GOP Town Hall Go Viral. The hard questions and strong show of concern from voters are affecting what’s going on in Congress. What once was a mad dash to repeal the ACA right away has slowed to a crawl for the moment, and there now is a split among Republicans in Congress. While many congressional Republicans still want to repeal the ACA immediately regardless of whether they have a replacement, at least a few are saying they want to figure out what the impact will be on real people and how they might address the harm that will do.

3. We’re still waiting to hear what the plan for repealing and replacing the ACA is: In mid-January, Trump said he had a plan that was finished except for some finishing touches and that he was just waiting for Price to be confirmed by the Senate as his HHS secretary. Price was confirmed last Friday, so maybe we will see his plan soon. Congressional Republicans are still trying to figure out what their plan should be. Some Republicans want to go ahead with repeal of the ACA now and figure out whether and how they might replace it later.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 16, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Shaun O’Brien works for AFL-CIO.  His interests include retirement security and health care. Follow him on twitter @ShaunOBrien30.

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