Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
October 12, 2009

Yugo Performance, Cadillac Price
It’s open enrollment season and as usual America’s tollgate keepers of our health care are heavily in to advertising. The Kansas City licensee of Blue Cross/Blue Shield ran a series of full page ads in the Kansas City Star rebutting their carping critics and emphasizing they are not for profit. They are a co-op, “owned” by policy holders.

I found this of interest for two reasons. On a personal level, I have a Blue employer group plan that gives secondary coverage to my Medicare and full coverage to my somewhat younger wife Mary, who is self-employed. Our 2010 monthly payment will be 1,011.95. Add in the premium for Medicare Part B deducted from my Social Security and our monthly bill will be 1100 dollars and change--without using anything. (My pre-retirement employer, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, contributes a whopping 22.50 toward these monthly expenses.) I believe this may qualify as a “Cadillac” plan that Democrat reformers in congress want to tax.

But more importantly, the Blues are a perfect example of what these same reformers have in mind for a “public option”–regional co-ops. Karl Vick does a good job in the Washington Post of exposing the co-op scam, North Dakota Scandal Raises Concerns About Health Co-op Route. He describes revelations about one of the smallest Blues,

“For the North Dakota insurance sales reps, March may have been the ideal time to enjoy the swim-up bar at a resort on Grand Cayman Island. But back on the northern Plains, where temperatures were below zero, policyholders at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota were less delighted when they learned about the trip for 66 staff members and guests.

“Word of the $238,000 Caribbean retreat broke last winter, compounded by news of other perks: $15 million in executive bonuses over five years, $400,000 for charter flights and $35,000 for a vice president's retirement party. And when the ensuing uproar cost Michael Unhjem his job as chief executive, his landing was softened by a $2.5 million severance payment.”

Was there a rebellion of the policy holder owners? Vick talked to a leading activist,

“‘It's a self-perpetuating board,’ said Morrison of NDpeople.org, noting that a 1998 effort by consumer advocates to nominate two directors was rebuffed in favor of candidates selected by incumbents. ‘The people on the board who supposedly had the people's interests were the power elite of North Dakota.’”

These practices are not limited to North Dakota. They are S.O.P. across our great land. And premiums charged by this network of co-ops have surged 87 percent over the past eight years.

Nor do the Blues act any differently than their competitors when it comes to saying “no” for needed services for their “owners.” They will explain their fiduciary responsibility to us owners to spend prudently. That’s just like investor owned CIGNA--the subject of an excellent article by California Nurses Association co-president Deborah Burger, The plight of the insured.

While the insurance industry is the proper central focus of the crisis now there are other major players at work as well in American corporate health care--which sucks up about seventeen percent of our GDP: Big Pharma charging unconscionable drug prices; greedy hospitals, both investor owned like HCA and church owned–just as ruthless; doctors organized through their chamber of commerce, the American Medical Association; health technology manufacturers such as General Electric; information systems outfits like Cerner–all driven by the same profit motives as any other companies none of these are in business for our health, all get a piece of the action, all are fighting for their interests in “reform.”

The White House early on brokered deals with all of these interest groups to get them on board. The insurance companies were guaranteed many millions of new customers. The drug industry got a pledge that there would be no negotiating of Medicare drug costs. More insured would mean more billable patients for doctors and hospitals. GE and Cerner would benefit from subsidy spending on technology.

These promising deals were in place last spring. Why then has the legislative implementation dragged on at the pace of escargot? And why are deals now unraveling? In my view there are three principal reasons:

• After adding up the cost of all these give-aways the price was prohibitive without major offsets.
• Obama wanted to have a bipartisan deal to cover himself.
• The promise to labor of a “robust public option” proved to be harder than expected to blow off.

Particularly ominous among the offsets proposed is the creation of a bipartisan Medicare Commission. Nothing good for working people has ever come out of such bodies. A 1983 Social Security Commission, chaired by Alan Greenspan, raised retirement age and made benefits subject to income tax for the first time.

The Medicare Commission would be empowered to make any cuts in spending they want which could only be blocked by an act of congress. While the cuts are formally aimed at hospitals and doctors you can bet uncovered services will be denied Medicare users. If this bold attack succeeds they undoubtedly will attempt the same with Social Security again.

Other offsets include the “luxury tax” on “Cadillac plans”–again aimed at insurers who will most certainly pass the increased cost on to the insured. And the tax on soda pop is patently a new tax on the working class as well.

It appears that the latest mutation of pseudoreform virus, long incubated by Senate Finance Committee chair--and jailor of single-payer advocates--Max Baucus, will come to a showdown soon. The latest estimate shows zero Republican support in the House, a maximum of one in the Senate. There will likely be numerous Democrat defections for a variety of motives.

At least this last point is encouraging. We can only hope this wretched swindle of health care reform gets the drubbing it so richly deserves. Keep the road clear for the only acceptable resolution to the health care crisis with substantial support: single-payer.

From the ACORN to the Mighty Oak
As we suspected, the manufactured mega-scandal around ACORN was just planting the seed for a similar attack on their real target–the nation’s second-biggest union, SEIU. SEIU has had close ties with the community organizing group and has paid them millions of dollars for help in organizing and community campaigns.

In response to the right-wing offensive, the Democrat administration in Topeka ordered Kansas state agencies to stop supplying basic information to the union organizing state subsidized home health care workers. Republican Reps. Mark Steven Kirk and Peter Roskam of Illinois and Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina urged the Census Bureau to stop allowing the SEIU to help recruit workers for its 2010 head count. “There's simply no place for a group so closely connected to ACORN to be part of something of such national importance as the U.S. Census,” they piously proclaimed. Republicans everywhere are demanding Democrats return SEIU campaign contributions.

An article in the Houston Chronicle about the difficulties SEIU faces in renewing its janitorial contracts does not fail to remind readers, “...the union has had links to ACORN, the national community organization that has drawn fire for alleged misbehavior by some employees, former officers and voter registration contractors.” And, SEIU itself gave credibility to the smear campaign by forcing ACORN founder Wade Rathke off their board and revoking the charter of Local 100 that Rathke had organized.

As is common in all types of organizations with lots of money, there have been isolated cases of corruption in both ACORN and SEIU. Those need to be dealt with and all known examples have been.

We’ve been among the harshest critics of the leadership policies of both organizations. But we think the veteran labor rights defender Herman Benson has the right approach, as reported in the Washington Post,

“Herman Benson, a labor expert and the founder of the Association for Union Democracy, said there is nothing improper on its face about the SEIU seeking out ACORN's help in connecting with low-income community members. The larger concern about the union, Benson said, is how much Stern has centralized power within it and consolidated smaller locals into mega-unions run by handpicked loyalists whom members cannot effectively challenge.”

The Stern gang is guilty of the high crimes and misdemeanors of bureaucratic dictatorship and collaboration with the bosses. For that they must answer to their membership. We make the distinction though between Stern’s apparatus and the Service Employees International Union. You don’t remove parasites by killing their host. SEIU needs our unconditional defense against the attacks of the bosses and politicians of both parties.

In Brief...
¶ From the
Washington Post. “As Congress presses forward with landmark legislation to revamp the nation's health-care system, lawmakers are grappling with a troubling question: Are Americans dying too soon? The answer is yes. When it comes to ‘preventable deaths’ -- an array of illnesses and injuries that should not kill at an early age -- the United States trails other industrialized nations and has been falling further behind over the past decade.” The U.S. preventable death rate is almost twice as high as France.

¶ To avoid any last day unpleasantness, the new owners stripping the assets of Stella D’oro closed the Bronx plant a day early. The 136 members of BCTGWM Local 50 won a partial victory through a NLRB ruling after eleven months on the picket line. Their win was short-lived when the Brynwood vulture capitalists sold the product name and equipment to snack food giant Lance which will move production to a non-union shop in Ashland, Ohio. The worker’s struggles won wide public sympathy and substantial picket line support from other unions. I suspect we haven’t heard the last from them yet.

Labor Notes reports, “After two years of delay, farmworkers in Florida will finally start getting a penny more per pound for tomatoes they pick. A powerful lobby group had blocked efforts to pass on the raise to workers, but employers’ unity is cracking. A deluge of worker and consumer pressure may be finally convincing industry leaders to address unconscionable labor abuse in the tomato fields.”

¶ The UAW has summoned Ford Local leaders to Detroit tomorrow amidst speculation they will be presented with a tentative concession agreement.

¶ The youth delegation at UN Climate Talks in Bangkok last week cited some concerns, “...pathetically weak targets from the North, alarm that a second commitment period in the Kyoto Protocol will not be secured, and a lack of guarantees for protection of indigenous peoples’ rights and interests in its declaration. The current text of the draft climate deal is so weak and so full of ‘false solutions’ (measures like offsetting that actually make the problem worse) it is unacceptable.” Other than that they thought it went well.

Don’t forget to check out the Daily Labor News Digest, updated by 7AM Central, Monday-Friday.

That’s all for this week..

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