Beware these coalition proposals

A May 29 New York Times article by Robert Pear, “Health Leaders Seek Consensus Over Uninsured,” reported that “24 ideologically disparate leaders representing the health care industry, corporations and unions, and conservative and liberal groups have been meeting secretly for months to seek a consensus on proposals to provide coverage for the growing number of people with no health insurance.” Pear has done a real service in bringing this development — and its dangers — to light.

The group, which first met last October, is made up of organizations that could seemingly bring health insurance to the more than 45 million people without coverage. The reason these groups met is a good one — something has to be done to get access to health services for everyone. But what methods are being used?

Although participants include the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees union (SEIU), the ultra-right think tank, the Heritage Foundation, is one of the main entities. Also involved are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, the AARP, the National Conference of State Legislatures and America’s Health Insurance Plans, as well as drug company giants Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.

Pear quotes a Heritage Foundation vice president: “It’s a coalition built of frustration. True believers on the left and the right have been stymied on this issue.”

Despite the wide range of groups, it’s best to beware when ultra-right organizations are in the mix. They don’t exist to take a back seat. They demand the ideological center of attention.

The “coalition” is considering the following proposals:

• First, to require parents to find health insurance for their children. If they are not eligible for programs like Medicaid, which has become harder and harder to get each, low-income parents could receive tax credits. The Commonwealth Foundation, a voluntary association of 53 cooperating countries including the United Kingdom, India and Canada, takes a different, more logical view. When a child is born, he or she is automatically enrolled in the federal/state government program, Child Health Plus. With the new proposal the burden lies with the parents, not their government. Wrong approach.

• The federal government could provide tax credits to low-income individuals and families or small businesses to help them pay for insurance. The full amount of the credit would be sent directly to the insurer. This still reduces the take-home pay of already low-wage earners. Wrong again.

• The group is also considering the Bush proposal for medical saving accounts, i.e. workers designate money to be deducted from their paychecks to be transferred directly to an insurer. This is a policy proposal of the insurance industry that has failed everywhere it has been tried. Wrong again.

• Medicaid could be expanded to cover any adult with income below the official poverty level (about $9,600 for an individual). Each state would decide for itself, but the federal government would provide financial incentives for them to take the option. This seems to be the “carrot” part of the carrot-and-stick approach, an appeal to those members of the coalition who are on the people’s side, but there are so many loopholes that such a proposal would never make it through. So, wrong again.

• Finally, there’s a return to insurance purchasing pools that appeared in the 1990s — another failure that was controlled by the insurance industry.

These proposals do seem to come out of the frustration over the health care crisis, but they also show that just calling a proposal national health legislation

doesn’t mean it will benefit us.

The proposals come right out of the drawing rooms of the number-crunchers of the insurance industry and their ideological leaders.

That the AFL-CIO and SEIU are parties to these discussions does show that there is some “unity” in labor over health care policy. But this kind of unity out of frustration must be revisited as soon as possible. The set of proposals above could actually threaten union-based benefit programs.

A better way to go would be for all of labor to sit down and develop its own national health program, protecting hard-won gains by establishing a benefit level of the best programs, bring along real coalition partners from Medicare and Medicaid, community activists and others, and write its own bill and promote it as a reason to reshape Congress and to change who sits in the White House.