Unions seek a new definition of liberty health care for all

ST. PAUL (Workday Minnesota) When the founding fathers (and mothers) declared their goals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” did they mean to include health care? This Fourth of July holiday, many unions and citizens are saying yes. For the first time in 15 years, Congress is considering legislation to provide health care to all. President Obama and many elected officials back a plan that includes a public option to private insurance. But opponents, including some labor-backed Democrats, are trying to block that effort.

At events in Minnesota and across the country, people are telling their elected officials that it’s time to act.

An overflow crowd of more than 200 people spilled out into the hallway at a forum Wednesday held by Congressman Keith Ellison, DFL-5th District. A town hall meeting held that same night by Congresswoman Betty McCollum also drew a large crowd.

On Thursday, SEIU activists gathered at McCollum’s district office in St. Paul to present her with a “Healthcare Independence Flag,” featuring photos and quotes from members sick and tired of enduring abuse when they try to get health care.

“Today we declare independence from a health care system that isn’t working for too many workers. This year—2009—is the year we fix health care and make sure all Americans gain the freedom of knowing we have affordable, guaranteed health care,” said Maristella Chimbo, SEIU Local 26 member.

Nationally, the United Food & Commercial Workers is inviting people to emulate their counterparts in the American Revolution by “declaring independence from the tyrannical insurance industry and demanding the choice of a public health insurance option.” See the campaign website, http://ufcwaction.org/campaign/independenceday

Americans, like the crowd who packed his forum, are ready for action, said Ellison. “This is a clear sign that the time for change is absolutely right now . . . We’ve gotta be heard. You’ve gotta get your voice out there!”

The facts are alarming:

• In 2004, half of all people filing for bankruptcy cited medical costs as a reason. • In 2008, half of all home foreclosures were due in part to the high cost of coverage and care. • Every day, 14,000 more Americans lose their insurance coverage during this economic crisis. Nearly 1 million Minnesotans are spending more than 10 percent of their income to pay for health insurance and 250,000 are spending more than 25 percent, said Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5 and one of the speakers at Ellison’s forum.

“No one in our opinion should have to spend more than 5 percent of their income on health care costs,” he said.

At both the Ellison and McCollum forums, several people spoke in favor of a “single payer” health care system that would cover everyone and eliminate costly private insurance. Obama has said this option is not on the table in the current debate.

“We don’t need to give more money to the insurance industry,” said Dr. Elizabeth Frost, a member of Minnesota Physicians for a National Health Program.

John Kolstad of the Metro Independent Business Alliance said private insurance has become too costly for many small businesses.

Unlike businesses in most other countries, “we are forced to put health care in our costs of goods,” he said. “How can we compete in a global economy?”

Julie Schnell, president of SEIU Health Care Minnesota, urged single payer supporters to back the public option in Obama’s plan.

“A strong public option is as close as we can get to single payer” and get a bill passed, she said.