Labor weighs its next move in the health care battle

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While a clear position on the latest Senate compromises on health care reform did not emerge from closed-door meetings of the nation's labor leaders last night what did emerge was a clear signal that labor is determined to continue the fight for health care that is affordable, for reform that curbs the power of the insurance companies, for rules that require corporations to cover their workers and for an approach that makes the wealthy pay a fair share of the cost.

Before it convened yesterday in an emergency session there were reports that the AFL-CIO Executive Council, angry over what it sees as the Senate's retreat on health care reform, would consider a resolution to oppose the latest deal which, among other things dumps both a government-run public option and a compromise replacement for that option, a Medicare buy-in for those 55 and older.

A high-level aide to the president of a union active in the fight for health care reform, on condition of anonymity, told the World last night that the reports were accurate and that union leaders expressed their anger about the compromise at the Wednesday meeting. He said, however, that no decision was reached because many at the meeting want time for labor and its allies in the fight for health care reform to work out a coordinated response to the continuing right wing attacks on health care reform.

That attack continued yesterday as Republicans tried to stall debate in the Senate by forcing the Senate clerk to read a 767 page amendment to the bill that would allow individual states to set up their own single-payer health insurance systems.

The aide told the World that labor leaders at the emergency meeting yesterday were "angry beyond words" that Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., had to withdraw the amendment. Many of the unions represented in the federation's Executive Council support single-payer health insurance. After 100 pages and three hours, an angry Sanders gave up.

The aide told the World that, "Most of the executive council members are very angry about what is going on in the Senate and a good number see the bill that has emerged so far as a bailout of the insurance industry. Some even see the mandate for everyone to buy coverage as a bad thing now that the bill has been weakened so much."

The aide said, however, that "despite the anger labor leaders want to continue the fight to push for what they can. They realize that we are in a very tough situation here. Some noted, at the meeting, that Sen. Sherrod Brown, a leader in this fight for reform, is still saying he will back the bill because it includes some very important reforms."

That position seemed to be reflected yesterday in a statement released by the Service Employees International Union, whose leaders also met yesterday to deal with issues raised by the Senate compromise.

The SEIU statement noted that positives in the bill include coverage of an additional 30 million people, ending the ability of insurers to cancel policies when people get sick, ending denial of coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and ending some of the discrimination women face because of their gender. The statement said the union had problems with the bill, however, because "for many people, care will still be too expensive to afford, some of you would face an additional burden because your health insurance benefits would be taxed, and the best way we saw possible to hold insurance companies accountable is no longer an option."

It is clear that on both sides of the health care battle the fight is continuing.
Even after all the concessions he has won to weaken reform, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman yesterday demanded assurances from Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader, that the House-Senate Conference report won't include the public option. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., joined him in that demand.

The public option could be re-inserted into the bill when the House-Senate conference irons out the differences between the stronger House bill and the weaker Senate bill. Lieberman is worried about that possibility because labor and its allies will continue their push for what they see as real reform after the Senate passes its version and because the rules of the Senate don't give senators as much leverage to block a conference report as they give for blocking an original bill.

The labor movement, for its part, is signaling its intention to continue pushing.
"We know we will fight," SEIU said in its statement yesterday. "We will continue the fight for everything we know is important. We will fight to make care affordable. We will fight for real health insurance reforms. We will fight for employers to provide their employees with coverage. And we will fight to pay for it without taxing workers' benefits."

The union plans a news conference later today to tell the White House and Congress why the Senate bill has to be improved.

Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP  People march for health care reform, July 18, in Portland, Maine.


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