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Standing for Meaningful Health Reform

The Senate Finance Committee is getting ready to debate a health care bill that does not come close to meeting the needs of America’s working families. Nor does it meet the standards President Obama laid out in his address last week to Congress. There is no employer mandate, no public option, no help for retirees. The bill imposes substantial costs on the states, weakens state insurance regulations and taxes health plans that provide benefits for many middle class families. This bill fails to provide good, affordable coverage and does not protect families from medical bankruptcy. It is unacceptable.

Wendell Potter, a former CIGNA executive, calls the Finance Committee bill an “absolute gift” to the insurance industry. It requires families to purchase coverage but doesn’t require the industry to provide coverage that is adequate and affordable. That’s wrong and it’s a political train wreck. Requiring families to get insurance they cannot afford or fining them thousands of dollars if they don’t will create a huge political backlash.

Everyone who believes in meaningful health care reform should call their Senator today, especially those who serve on the Finance Committee, to tell them that the bill being considered there must be fixed. It has been written to appease a small group of Republicans who will not vote for it. Democrats can do better and they must do better. Reforming health care is too important to do half way.

The problems with the current U.S. health care system are linked to the overall problems with our economy. As our health care costs have increased, our economic bottom lines have plunged downward. That threatens the economic security of working families, strains state and federal budgets, and reduces the competitiveness of American businesses. Working families are paying more and getting less – while being forced to fight with insurance companies to get the care they need and get their bills paid.

We know that President Obama gets the connection between our broken health care system and our failing economy. That is why he is so committed to achieving comprehensive health care reform this year. We share the President’s passionate belief that no one in America should have to go without necessary health care. No one should be denied medicine or treatment because of insurance company whims or tricks. And no one should go bankrupt to pay for decent care.

AFSCME is working to stabilize the system of employment-based health coverage and ensure that employers assume responsibility for contributing to the cost of coverage. We are fighting to keep a public plan option to inject competition into the system. That way working families will still be able to keep the coverage they have, but their costs will be lower because of the competition provided by an administratively-efficient public plan. We also support making needed reforms to the private health insurance markets to make sure that no one is denied coverage or charged more because of their health status or gender.

As a case in point, the most expensive health coverage plan for state employees is in Nebraska, where premiums for family coverage run just under $25,000. It’s no coincidence that the last time this plan was put out for a bid, only one insurer bid on it. In North Dakota, where Blue Cross/Blue Shield is the state’s dominant health insurer, member premiums have skyrocketed. At the same time, insurance company executives have given themselves nearly $15 million in bonuses, regardless of their performance. In fact, as The Fargo Forum reported last week, their compensation incentive program “was rigged” to pay out even when their company suffered losses. That’s an outrage.

The bottom line for us is when there is little or no competition, our costs go up, and this is why we need a public plan option.

Last week and today at the AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh, President Obama said that enough is enough. Enough of inadequate health care and high costs. Enough of the political games. Enough of the half measures and delay that keep America’s families from getting what they need.

The President made it clear that America can’t wait for meaningful reform that lowers costs, improves quality, covers more and stops insurance company abuses. That’s why AFSCME joins him in this fight. AFSCME members know that the health of our family budgets, our federal budget and our very economy depends on health care reform this year. And we also know that the President and Congress can’t get it done without the leadership and support of labor.

AFSCME has committed an unprecedented amount of resources and energy to this effort — including ads, canvassing, phone calls, online activities and the deployment of dozens of campaign field organizers to key states. AFSCME is doing all we can to ensure that, as President Obama said, he will be the last president forced to make the case for health care reform. We’re going to hold Congress accountable and take on the insurance industry.

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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.