The Hill had a story today about how some liberals and labor groups were easing their threat to “kill the bill.” That is perhaps best exemplified by Andy Stern, who followed up his open letter to members with a conference call just now. In it, he sharply criticized several aspects of the Senate health care bill, but said that he supported passage through the Senate, “to move this bill to conference where the real work needs to be done.”

Asked specifically whether or not he supported the Senate bill, Stern said, “We’re for putting the bill into conference. We don’t like the bill, it has to be improved, but these Senators won’t do any better.” He urged one or two “obstructionists” to get out of the way and get the bill off the Senate floor.

This may be seen as a contrast to Howard Dean’s firm stand against the Senate bill. However, Dean said clearly that “I’m not giving up on health-care reform” in his Washington Post op-ed today, noting the good points of the legislation and expressing a hope that it could be fixed in the Senate or in conference. So Stern and Dean are actually not quite as far from one another as you would think on this. Asked about Dean’s stand, Stern said, “Howard Dean has always had a strong perspective. We take our marching orders” from the SEIU membership, which he said needs the expansion of coverage through subsidies and Medicaid.

As to the specifics that Stern would like to see fixed in conference, he used some of his members, all of whom have a variety of problems with the current health care system, to highlight them. Melody Collins, an RN from Maine, said that the bill needs “strong, enforceable regulations on private insurance,” and the Senate version isn’t there yet. Athena Jones, a personal care assistant from Virginia, is not offered coverage by her employer and cannot afford coverage on individual market. She argued for better affordability and more generous subsidies. Another woman talked about how her union local has a high-end insurance plan subject to the excise tax, because they negotiated away salary benefits in the past.

Stern argued for stronger insurance regulations to close potential loopholes, greater subsidies, the ability for part-time workers to have the opportunity to have health insurance, and eliminating the excise tax on high-end plans. He also expressed support for the public option, but was pessimistic on whether that could be accomplished in conference. On the other points, however, he said that there is an opportunity to improve the legislation, and that SEIU would “do everything we know how to do to try and improve it. This is not just going to be the Senate bill ping-ponged back to the House.”

Stern would not say whether he was prepared to walk away from the bill if the changes he sought didn’t materialize in conference, preferring to look forward. “The only thing we’re fighting is to improve the quality of the bill,” he said.

He added that “America has waited too long to turn back now. It’s time for the senators to take a vote, time to move to conference, and write the final chapter of history… books need endings.”

David Dayen

David Dayen