Push For Universal Care
July 18, 2006 - 11:30am ET
While the rest of the world was distracted by the powder keg in the Middle East, the Service Employees International Union's Andy Stern quietly fired an opening shot yesterday in the battle for universal health care.
The movement for universal health care is decades old, of course. But the battle to get corporate America to join it is just beginning. Writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal , Stern declared the era of employee-based health care over, and made a direct appeal to U.S. business leaders to "make health care their national priority."
With balance sheet after balance sheet showing companies spending more on health care than any other expense, it's hard to believe corporate America isn't already bankrolling an advocacy group in Washington to push a government health insurance program. And yet just last week, the CEO of the company that is arguably most affected by health care costs—GM—was on Capitol Hill arguing against government-run health care, in favor of cost-efficiency and consumer education.
Why the resistance to government providing this most basic of all services to Americans, thus lightening the burden on corporations? Is it some hallowed belief in the superiority of private-sector solutions to every public problem? In his op-ed and simultaneous letter to the nation's top 500 CEOs, Stern doesn't address why people smart enough to make lots of money can't see the value of a public investment in health care via a national health program. Writing in an article last year for In These Times , David Lindorff blamed ideology for the U.S. business community's stubborn refusal to embrace a national health system:
The notion of having the government take over an industry that represents about 15 percent of the U.S. economy gives U.S. executives the willies.
Health insurance run by Uncle Sam too socialist? Whatever their reasons for opposing universal health care, corporate America could overcome them with enough political pressure. Which is precisely what Stern is trying to drum up. Almost a year ago, TomPaine.com published an article by Jonathan Tasini that charted a strategy to move U.S. executives into the single-payer camp:
We need to put the real onus on corporate executives with a carrot-and-stick approach that is based on a clear principle: your ability to compete depends on single-payer health care. For those who refuse, it's time to mount an aggressive corporate and public relations campaign. One shareholder approach might be to cut back executive pay and benefits each year by the same percentage total health care costs amount to in the corporate bottom-line. If that doesn't work, a more serious step would call for divesting from companies that oppose single-payer.
The key element of Tasini's strategy? Labor unions—all of them, not just SEIU—should lead the fight for universal health care, placing it above other concerns:
... unions need to take the fight on for the public good. Pension funds, representing hundreds of thousands of current and retired workers who face health care cost pressure, have a significant financial interest in seeing the system changed; the California Public Employees Retirement System alone has $177 billion that it could use as leverage.
One year later, I don't know of any union that is as loud a public advocate for universal health care as SEIU. Achieving a national health program would solve so many problems facing American workers. Wouldn't it be worth placing other issues on the backburner for a year or two? Perhaps Stern has another letter to write. To his fellow labor leaders.
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