Vote or die is no joke

The phrase “Vote or Die” is a favorite among young voters and meant to get them to the polls. For health care activists, this is not an empty phrase but a grim reality. The policies of the Bush administration, if not stopped, will bring suffering and death to tens of thousands.

John Henshaw, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, says workers should rely on their employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Bush prefers “voluntary compliance” rather than using OSHA federal marshals to regulate and punish employers who violate the law. The strategy is backed up with sharp cutbacks on enforcement budgets.

While OSHA may talk about involving unions, it regularly meets with employers only. Any worker knows that relying on employers to fix their own hazards is useless. That was why OSHA was enacted in the first place. Strictly enforced federal regulations, established by strong worker and union participation in hearings and standard setting, was the congressional intent when the law was passed in 1970.

The Bush administration response to workers and their unions is the opposite. For example, in addition to gutting the enforcement rules, they propose downgrading the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to a level that would leave it severely underfunded and unable to fulfill its congressional mandate of conducting research and education programs to protect workers and their families.

When Bush baits John Kerry about the role of government, he is really saying that the health care system is meant to be profit-motivated, not service-motivated. When Bush talks about self-reliance for patients, he is handing the medical industrial complex millions of dollars in federal monies and more power to determine the future of health care in our country.

Missing from the administration’s equation for health and occupational health are the people at whom these programs are aimed, that is, workers, their families and the unions and other organizations that represent them.

The crudest example of the “profits first and people last” policy is the administration’s payoff to the powerful drug companies via their phony Medicare program. With Bush as president, there is no hope for policy changes that would significantly adjust the Medicare law so that its benefits will actually help seniors and the disabled.

Bush won’t do anything that would limit drug company profits. He won’t allow the federal government to negotiate the price of drugs so that they are affordable. In fact, Bush and his drug company allies are trying to stop other governments from negotiating the price of drugs. As a lame duck president, Bush will push for more profits, not less.

Just as education advocates have shown the hypocrisy of Bush’s underfunded “No Child Left Behind,” his contempt for children is just as dramatic in his health policy. He proposed a 30 percent cut in funds for children’s hospitals in the year 2004 budget. And, in 2001 he actually proposed a reduction in the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) by $11 billion.

John Kerry has promised to do what child health advocates have been demanding, that is, change the policy so that a newborn child is immediately enrolled in the CHIP program. Bush sees this as “government interference.” Currently, parents have to apply for the program — sometimes not even knowing such a program exists. This is why only about 35 percent of eligible children are enrolled.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.