Union Leaders Attack Senate Health Bill, Push for Tougher Reforms

Art Levine

With some progressives – most notably former DNC chair Howard Dean and influential bloggers – in open revolt against the watered-down Senate health reform bill, union leaders Thursday added their voices to mounting progressive anger over Democratic capitulation to conservaDems on key provisions. But they stopped well short of Dean’s proposal to start all over again on a new bill if the new one isn’t improved.

The union concerns add to the liberal rift over the legislation, with some progressive leaders and organizations pushing back against claims by liberal Senate defenders, such as Sen. Tom Hark (D-Iowa), and the White House that even its current form, it’s good legislation worth supporting. That perspective was strengthened by a new report by the respected Center for Budget and Policy Priorities that found that the Medicare buy-in proposal that’s been dropped wouldn’t have added significantly to health care coverage.

Now new polling released today co-sponsored by the Progressive Congressional Change Committee shows anger, especially among progerssives and independents, over the current direction of the legislation – and at President Obama for not being more forceful in dealing with Sen. Joe Lieberman. As reported by TPMDC and other outlets:

A full 87 percent of Democrats say Obama should have upped the pressure on Lieberman to play nice (10 percent answered no). And 72 percent of Independents agree, Obama didn’t do enough to rein in Lieberman’s bid to kill the public option” On top of that, the poll noted, 56 percent of the public opposed a bill that included health insurance mandates withoug a public option.

And in a statement yesterday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, For this health care bill to be worthy of the support of working men and women, substantial changes must be made.” He outlined at least three main provisions they’re hoping to change:

Genuine health care reform must bring down health costs, hold insurance companies accountable, assure that Americans can get the health care they need and be financed fairly. 

· That’s why we are championing a public health insurance option: It is the way to break the stranglehold of the insurance industry over consumers that has led to double digit premium increases virtually every year. 

· Employers must pay their fair share. 

· And the benefits of hard-working Americans cannot be taxed to pay for health care
—that’s no way to rein in insurance companies and it’s the wrong way to pay for health care reform. 

He added, The absolute refusal of Republicans in the Senate to support health care reform and the hijacking of the bill by defenders of the insurance industry have brought us a Senate bill that is inadequate: It is too kind to the insurance industry…The House bill is the model for genuine health care reform. Working people cannot accept anything less than real reform.”

Andy Stern, president of SEIU, also blasted the Senate measure in a conference call with reporters Thursday. As reported by Bloomberg News:

Andy Stern, the labor union chief who was one of the most frequent White House visitors this year, criticized President Barack Obama for not fighting for more sweeping changes in health-care legislation.

We need his personal involvement,” Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, said yesterday in a conference call with reporters. We are encouraging him to really step in here now” and use all the powers of persuasion that he has.”

Stern, whose union spent $85 million last year to help elect Obama to the White House and Democrats to Congress, adds to growing discontent among Democratic allies over compromises made in the bill to overhaul the nation’s health insurance system. The Senate has loosened provisions in legislation designed to curb medical expenses and provide health care for 31 million uninsured Americans.

Senate leaders compromised to get the votes needed by dropping the public option, a government-run insurance program that labor unions have said is vital to bringing down the costs charged by private insurers.

For many people, care will still be too expensive to afford,” Stern said in a letter to union members yesterday. Some of you will face an additional burden because your health insurance will be taxed,” he said.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also told the Huffington Post that the current version of the Senate bill – lacking both a public option and a Medicare buy-in for those 55 and older – would die in the House. He told reporter Sam Stein:

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told the Huffington Post that both he and his members are extremely disappointed” with the compromises conservative Democrats extracted from Senate leaders. Rather than formally opposing the bill, he expressed confidence that it will change before passage

If the Senate bill in its current form went to the House it would go down,” he declared…

I can tell you this,” he added. The plan as it currently is would not get much support from the American worker unless it is improved.”

The White House and some progerssive groups are seeking to prevent liberals from abandoning the bill altogether. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

The White House and several advocacy groups banded together Thursday in an attempt to pacify liberals who are furious over compromises made to the Senate healthcare legislation. The bill’s advocates said that it still would make a difference in the lives of Americans, and warned that the cost of failure was high.

Former President Clinton issued a statement that said: America can’t afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And this is a good bill.” And abandoning the effort to pass healthcare legislation would be a tragic outcome,” David Axelrod, a senior advisor to President Obama, told MSNBC.

Axelrod and Clinton largely were pushing back at Howard Dean, former head of the Democratic National Committee, and his liberal advocacy group, Democracy for America. In recent days, Dean has taken to the airwaves and news pages to savage the Senate bill, saying it should either be changed or killed.

Equally important, though, was that reform advocates, including unions, are urging that progressives angered at the changes continue to work to improve it.

The Los Angeles Times also observed that other liberal advocacy groups, along with labor unions, restrained their criticisms.

Richard Kirsch, national campaign director for Health Care for America Now, said that his members were angry and somewhat disgusted by the politics in Washington.” But rather than call for killing the Senate bill outright, he said, the group was determined to force changes to the legislation in later negotiations between the Senate and House.

The House legislation includes a public option to give some consumers an additional choice for buying insurance. The House also taxes wealthier Americans to cover the cost of expanding insurance to more people; the Senate bill relies heavily on taxing high-value insurance plans, which could hit some union members.

The powerful AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union said they would push House members to stand up for their version of the legislation when the House and Senate bills are molded into a single measure. SEIU President Andrew Stern also called on Obama to make his presence felt in the negotiations.

We’re encouraging him to really step in here now at the end of the process,” Stern said, where his position really matters.”

The White House is continuing to argue that the progerssive base shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The dispute has troubling political implications, as the Financial Times reported:

Supporters of the administration said Mr Obama faced a backlash from progressives that could damage him in next year’s mid-term congressional elections. … Yesterday’s escalation of the dispute between liberals and the White House coincided with opinion polls showing sharply declining support for healthcare reform. A poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC also showed that Mr. Obama’s personal approval ratings had dropped below 50 per cent for the first time since he took office.

Liberal disaffection, though, could play into the hands of conservatives seeking to kill health reform altogether – which may have been Lieberman’s game plan all along. Rachel Maddow underscored Thursday the threat to kill the bill that’s still at work and the dangers that could pose to real reform:

Visit msnbc​.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
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