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Working In These Times

Thursday, Mar 3, 2011, 11:50 am

Unions To Hold Preemptive Jazz Funeral in Madison for Welfare Programs

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

Wis. Gov. Walker would slash funding for Medicaid, but boost funding for program that buries destitute Wisconsinites

A coaltion of public- and private-sector unions is holding a jazz funeral for the welfare state in Wisconsin. A New Orleans-style funeral procession, complete with jazz band, will depart from the Library Mall at five o'clock on Thursday and wend its way to the Capitol.

On Tuesday, Republican Gov. Scott Walker unveiled a budget that calls for deep cuts in nearly every area of government spending, including healthcare, education, and environmental protection.

Jean Ross, a nurse and co-president of National Nurses United plans to attend today's march. "There's some grieving to be done for what Walker's trying to do," Ross told Working In These Times. The march is endorsed by National Nurses United, Madison Teachers Incorporated, the Kill the Bill Coalition, and a host of other public and private sector labor groups.

Gov. Walker wants to slash $500 million from Medicaid over the next two years. Medicaid is the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor which covers 1.2 million Wisconsinites, or, one out of every five residents. 

Ross says that the budget is a power grab. Walker sparked furious and ongoing with his earlier "budget repair" bill that called for the elimination of most collective bargaining rights for public employees. Fourteen Democratic state senators have fled to Illinois to deny the Republican majority the quorum it needs to pass the bill.

The abolition of collective bargaining rights for public employees doesn't just affect the workers themselves. Public-sector unions also bargain over issues that affect the level of service that they provide to the taxpayer. Strong public-sector unions act as a check on the power of the government to slash programs and services.

"Our main job advocate for patients," Ross said of nurses and teachers, "We can't do that if we can’t advocate for ourselves."

For example, the budget calls for cuts in Medicaid reimbursement for patients with end stage renal disease (ESRD). ESRD is the last stop on the road to a kidney transplant. Cuts in reimbursements could mean that the wealthy get kidney transplants while the poor languish on dialysis or die.

Ross worries that, if nurses can't advocate for their patients through their unions, critical medical and moral decisions will be left to cost-cutting political appointees.

Walker's budget also recommends increasing payments to counties to cover the costs of burying Wisconsinites who die destitute.

"If he’s going to let let them die, he’d better beef up the cemeteries," Ross said, "The man has no heart."

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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