Unions lobby for teachers and first responders

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - Carmen Morales, RN, a nurse practitioner from Bakersfield, Calif., brought a message to Washington for her congressman, Kevin McCarthy - who happens to be the GOP majority whip, a powerful lawmaker in the Republican-run House. 

If you cut Medicare and Medicaid, says Morales, a nurse at Kern County Medical Center, "we'll lose people left and right - not just nurses, but patients who didn't have to die."  As funding drops, nurses say, nurse-patient ratios rise.  So do avoidable deaths. 

Morales, a Service Employees member, and hundreds of other nurses --members of SEIU and AFSCME -- Fire Fighters, AFGE members and other unionists came to Capitol Hill on Sept. 19 with a blunt message for lawmakers: That it's time to stop the politics and provide the cash to save or create people's jobs.

And two ways to do so, they said during a packed-to-the-gills rally in the huge Senate Caucus Room, are to defeat planned cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and to pass legislation giving federal aid to state and local governments, part of Democratic President Barack Obama's jobs bill.  Before and after the rally, they lobbied for both. 

The week before, the Democratic-run Senate succumbed to a GOP filibuster against Obama's $447 billion plan, which independent economists calculate would save or create more than a million jobs.  Vice President Joseph Biden told the crowd that he and Obama, in one-on-one sessions constructing the bill, deliberately chose pieces that attracted Democratic and Republican support in the past - and that Congress could break up and pass one by one. 

The first piece channels aid to state and local governments, to help them save the jobs of an estimated 300,000 teachers, 15,000 Fire Fighters and thousands of public safety officers, said Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, who hosted the rally. 

But passing the bill is more than just saving jobs, nurses, Fire Fighters and other workers said.  It's saving families, communities, and lives. 

Cathy Stoddart, a nurse at Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) Hospital and an SEIU local president, sees the impact of the Great Recession, and the need for jobs for the public safety workers, both ways.  She commutes an hour from her home in Ohio to her job in Pittsburgh - and her hometown is devastated.

"One out of six homes in town has been foreclosed.  1,400 families don't have jobs.  Wheeling-Pitt Steel has been closed for two years," she says.  Many of the jobless are Fire Fighters who now volunteer their services, or unemployed teachers who keep teaching for no pay, because they care for their kids, at after-school programs.

Both groups also lost health insurance.  They depend on Medicaid, the federal program for low-income people, or go without care at all - until they must show up in an emergency room.  Yet the GOP-run House wants to cut Medicaid, and won't help re-store the Fire Fighters' and teachers' jobs. "Our safety net will fall apart," Stoddart says.

The nurses and other workers got strong support from officials, all Democrats led by Biden, who spoke at the rally.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised senators would vote on the "Teachers and First Responders Act," by Oct. 21.  He did not promise it would pass.  He did not discuss Medicare and Medicaid.

Schaitberger said the $13 billion teachers-first responders bill should pass.  "This will put people back to work at a time when 14 million are out of work," he declared.  "It will increase public safety at a time when cuts to resources have made our communities less safe," and it "will ensure our schools remain strong," he added.

But while the Democrats pledged support for the bill, which would be paid for by a half percent surtax on all individual income over $1 million, the GOP is another matter.

Morales said an aide to McCarthy listened to her politely - and that's all -- when she discussed the impact of Medicaid cuts on Kern County Medical Center, which is at the southern end of California's "food basket," the Central Valley.  She noted 60% of the hospital's income comes from Medicare and Medicaid patients.  Even a 2 percent cut in those programs would cost the hospital millions, and further curb quality of care.

Stoddart got enthusiastic support for Medicare and Medicaid, and opposition to the cuts, from Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., who represents Pittsburgh.  The legislative aide to her hometown lawmaker, Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, "was cool," she added.

Stoddart was being polite.  That same Johnson aide had another comment to her and to Patrick Diguilio, a bedside nurse at Allegheny County.  Diguilio told of elderly couples who receive prescriptions for illnesses both share, such as hypertension.  But the prescriptions are for different medications, and the couples couldn't afford them.

So the couples bought one medication, cut the pills in half, and shared them.  That landed them in the hospital, Diguilio said.  Medicaid and Medicare could help those couples, if it isn't cut, he told Johnson's staffer.  The response: "Well, that's a problem - they're drug addicts."   "That's appalling," Diguilio told PAI.  And he shook his head over the prospect of that aide giving the GOP congressman that type of misinformation.

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