Unionists demand universal health care at DC rally

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WASHINGTON (PAI)—Declaring Congress must listen to the voters, and not the health insurance companies, thousands of health care advocates—led by unionists—demanded universal, affordable health care in a mass rally on June 25.

The crowd, featuring more than 1,000 Communications Workers legislative conference delegates—decked out in red “We demand Health Care Now!” T-shirts—then converged on Capitol Hill to lobby for affordable health care.

Other unionists at the rally were from the Steelworkers, the Laborers (in orange), the Seafarers, The Newspaper Guild, the Office and Professional Employees, IBEW, UFCW (in yellow), the Teachers (blue), the Service Employees (purple), the Teamsters, the Ironworkers, AFSCME (green) and the Bricklayers. Advocates from almost 200 other groups nationwide chimed in, as some came from as far as Seattle and Portland.

The system they advocate, which is being pushed by the Democratic Obama administration and hammered out in key congressional committees, features universal coverage, medical cost controls, consumer choice of doctors, a government-run Medicare-like alternative to the health insurers and that the cost not be shouldered by taxing workers for their present insurance.

“All of us in the labor movement know we can’t just take care of health care at the bargaining table. The bargaining table is being crushed” by rising health care costs, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen told the throng.

Some of the crowd campaigned for HR 676, government-run universal health care. They called for total abolition of the private insurers and their high co-pays and premiums, refusal of care, huge profits and tons of paperwork.

And though leaders did not adopt the abolition of the private insurers, the health industry and its malevolent influence—especially its duplicitous back-door campaign against the public-run alternative—this was in the speakers’ sights.

“Do you want a real strong public option?” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., yelled. “Yes!” the crowd yelled back. Schumer, a key negotiator, has at times floated a weak public alternative to the insurance industry.

“We’re counting on you to go across the street” to the Capitol “and convince and persuade and cajole and cajole and cajole” lawmakers to enact universal health care this year, said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “The special interests will not hijack this process. We must have a strong public option.”

Service Employees Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, whose union is one of the nation’s largest for health care workers, said her members see the impact of lack of health care coverage in the nation’s emergency rooms daily.

“People are more worried about their medical bills than about the illnesses they have to treat,” Burger added. The insurers “have bean-counters and paper-pushers telling people what they can’t get,” Burger said. “We know our health care system is broken,” added SEIU Vice President Diane Palmer, RN, head of its Nurse Alliance.

AFSCME President Gerry McEntee also warned the crowd about the controversy over paying the nation’s health care bill. Congressional panels are wrestling with an estimated $1 trillion cost to overhaul health care. Health care consumes $2.5 trillion, one-sixth of overall U.S. output. Some 20% — at least—of that health care cost goes for insurers’ overhead, profits and paperwork.

“Our opponents will fight hard and fight dirty and they’ll outspend us,” McEntee warned. “Taxing health care benefits is the wrong way” to pay for health care, and it’s pushed by the Right Wing, he added. “The right way is, first, to start by taxing the wealthy, and second, by closing corporate loopholes.”

In their lobbying after the rally, unionists warned lawmakers that if workers must pay taxes on their present health benefits, they and the labor movement will turn against that health care legislation.

But there were two groups missing from the mass rally: The nation’s employers—except for one small business owner on a live video feed from a similar rally in the Pacific Northwest—and Republicans.

That’s even though some leading business groups joined prior congressional hearings on health care, realizing its skyrocketing costs makes them uncompetitive with foreign firms and can push them out of business here at home. The GOP, egged on by the insurers, is against the public alternative, and much of the rest of Obama’s plan, too.

“We have a message to employers: Get off our backs and get by our sides and fight together for health care for all,” CWA's Larry Cohen said.

Sherrod Brown added another reason the insurers are fighting so hard against the public alternative: they fear its advocates are right. “The industry says they can do things the best, and that government can’t do anything. So explain to me why they’re so afraid a government-run option will put them out of business,” he said.

Press Associates, Inc. (PAI) — 6/26/2009