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President Obama is Right: Health Care Reform Cannot Wait

On Tuesday night, President Obama spoke to the nation about how we will rebuild our economy. Like many Americans, I was heartened to hear him renew his commitment to pursue health care reform and to do it THIS YEAR. He told us that the "cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough." And he is right.

AFSCME members know this too well. The cost of health care coverage has skyrocketed. It threatens the economic security of working families, it strains state and federal budgets and it reduces the competitiveness of American businesses, especially those that compete in the global market. And shamefully, more than 46 million people have no coverage at all. Those fortunate enough to have coverage too often receive poor quality care.

We agree with President Obama that in reforming our health care system, we need to build on what works. Those who like their coverage should keep it. Those who don’t, should have a choice of private insurance plans or a high quality public health insurance plan. A public health insurance plan would operate more cost-effectively and drive quality improvements. This would force efficiencies and innovation in private insurance coverage. We need an American solution in which all of us–individuals, employers and government–share responsibility for guaranteeing quality, affordable health care we can all count on.

In his speech to the joint session of Congress on Tuesday, President Obama told us that we must address the crushing costs of health care in order to move our country forward. He gave us the grim statistics on why we must finally reform our health care system and get our health care costs under control. Today, it causes a bankruptcy every 30 seconds. By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages. Health care costs force small businesses to close their doors and corporations to ship jobs overseas.

President Obama has followed up his strong words on Tuesday night with a budget that makes good on his promise. While we don’t yet know all the details, he proposes to put $634 billion (over ten years) in a reserve fund to pay for health care reform. This is a substantial downpayment towards achieving comprehensive health care reform. And it’s not just money. The President’s budget also includes policy changes that will improve our health care system, such as reining in overpayments to private Medicare plans and requiring them to compete in order to offer coverage.

President Obama’s economic recovery plan included investments in our health care system that will reduce medical errors, bring costs down and improve quality of care and save lives. Now, he is building on these reforms in his first budget, making "an historic commitment to comprehensive health care reform–a down-payment on the principle that we must have quality, affordable health care for every American." And he told us "let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year." Amen to that.

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Gerald McEntee

Gerald McEntee

Gerald W. McEntee is the International President of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the most aggressive and politically active organizing unions in the AFL-CIO. Since 2006, 145,000 women and men have changed their lives by forming a union with AFSCME. McEntee was first elected AFSCME President in 1981 and was re-elected in July 2008 to another four-year term.

As a Vice President of the AFL-CIO and chair of the Political Education Committee, McEntee is a key leader of the labor movement and its political efforts. Under McEntee’s leadership, the federation created its highly successful and much imitated voter education and mobilization program, which increased the number of union household voters to a record 26 percent of the electorate in 2006.

McEntee has long been a leader in the fight to reform the nation’s health care system. He chairs the AFL-CIO’s Health Care Committee and is a co-chair of Health Care for America NOW!, a national grassroots coalition that has launched a $40 million campaign to guarantee quality, affordable health care for all Americans.

McEntee is a co-founder and chairman of the board of the Economic Policy Institute, the preeminent voice for working Americans on the economy. He led the successful fight to stop President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, was an outspoken proponent for increasing the federal minimum wage, and is one of the nation’s leading advocates for America’s vital public services.

For his efforts to improve the lives of working families, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights presented McEntee with its prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Award in 2004.

Before assuming the presidency of AFSCME, McEntee began his distinguished career as a labor leader in Pennsylvania in 1958. He led the drive to unionize more than 75,000 Pennsylvania public service employees, which at that time was the largest union mobilization in history. He was elected Executive Director at the founding convention of AFSCME Council 13 in Pennsylvania in 1973 and an International Vice President of AFSCME in 1974.

McEntee holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. A native of Philadelphia, McEntee and his wife Barbara live in Washington, DC.