by Bill Onasch
Special Notice to Readers—Our List Is Moving
An e-mail service I used for years to distribute the WIR has made me an offer I can’t refuse to get me back. Later this week I will send a message to current Yahoo and Google subscribers explaining the very simple procedure needed to move with us to the new, double opt-in list at iContact. It shouldn’t take more than 2-3 minutes of your time. BOLO and thanks in advance for your cooperation.
Two Health Crises—Nurses Hit Both
National Nurses United is a major supporter of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Health Care addressing that American crisis. More about that later. They are also out front fighting to resolve an even more ominous threat to the very biosphere nurturing the health of all species on our planet. A posting on the NNU blog from their California affiliate began,
“More than 1,200 California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee registered nurses, environmental and healthcare activists, and students on Dec. 3 marched and rallied in Los Angeles to demand that the world’s leaders, now convening in Paris for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, adopt a binding and enforceable climate treaty, commit resources to fund the transformation to clean, renewable energy including a just transition program for those who now work in the fossil fuel industry, and call on wealthy, developed countries to provide resources for the less-developed countries to act on climate….”
They went on to describe climate change from their perspective as health care professionals,
“The public health dimensions of the global climate crisis are extensive and far-reaching, nurses say. According to the World Health Organization, more than 8 million deaths worldwide are directly attributable to air pollution, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels and lack of access to clean energy. Infectious and vector-born diseases, such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and Lyme, will spike as temperatures increase. Further global warming and climate change will magnify the already catastrophic health impacts of: fossil fuel pollution, hunger and malnutrition due to desertification and devastation and displacement from severe weather events and sea level rise.”
That’s a pretty good description of how global capitalism is dangerous to all living things. We can’t see the greenhouse gas accumulation in our atmosphere. But we can’t avoid seeing our species suffering from disease, malnutrition, and the casualties from heat waves, floods, and extreme storms–driven by global warming. Hats off to the nurses for popularizing the connection.
The other crisis is one that too many in the labor movement like to pretend was already fixed by their “friend” in the White House through the so-called Affordable Care Act. After a long decline in annual increases in health care spending—actually beginning in the Bush II administration–last year’s bump of 5.3 percent was the biggest of the Obama years. That’s more than double the inflation rate, and it ate up 17.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product—by far the highest share in the industrialized world.
2016 insurance premiums are again a crazy quilt–in and out of the government exchanges, varying not only state by state but even among counties within the same state. Overall, premiums for the ACA “benchmark” second lowest Silver plan will rise 7.3 percent. But the 100,000 with benchmark plans in Kansas City will see an average 20.1 percent increase. My much younger and self-employed wife Mary is still comparing the various permutations of higher premiums and higher deductibles.
Health outcomes have not kept pace with this rebound in increasingly unaffordable care. Many are still being left behind due to class and color inequality. Blacks lag whites in almost every measure—in infant mortality their numbers are close to those in what used to be called Third World countries.
But the perceptive chronicler of the working poor, author of Nickle and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich, notes a perverse trend toward equality in an article entitled Dead White and Blue: The Great Die-Off of America’s Blue Collar Whites,
“While the lifespan of affluent whites continues to lengthen, the lifespan of poor whites has been shrinking. As a result, in just the last four years, the gap between poor white men and wealthier ones has widened by up to four years….It was especially not supposed to happen to whites who, in relation to people of color, have long had the advantage of higher earnings, better access to health care, safer neighborhoods, and of course freedom from the daily insults and harms inflicted on the darker-skinned. There has also been a major racial gap in longevity — 5.3 years between white and Black men and 3.8 years between white and Black women — though, hardly noticed, it has been narrowing for the last two decades. Only whites, however, are now dying off in unexpectedly large numbers in middle age”
A big factor in the boost in health care costs is prescription drugs. Some companies have done minor tinkering with old relatively cheap generics—and posting new astronomical price increases. I dropped Etodolac, an arthritis drug that’s been around for decades, after a three month supply went from 12 dollars to 90. I can get by popping more off-brand aspirin but many have to give up meds much more needed.
Some new drugs actually represent real breakthroughs. Every evening while watching the news I see commercials hailing a new treatment that is very effective in curing Hepatitis C. One big group who could benefit are men and women of my generation who were unfortunate enough to serve in Vietnam but lucky enough to come back alive. Many of them returned with Hep C, acquired in various ways “in country.”
The often unfairly maligned VA is eager to use the new treatment for thousands of former GIs with Hep C who depend on them for medical care. Unlike Medicare, the VA can negotiate prices with Big Pharma. But the best deal they have been able to get is 85,000 dollars for the full treatment needed. That’s a budget buster that Congress is unlikely to alleviate. Once again we see how nothing is too good for our Vets—and that’s what most with Hep C will get.
The main accomplishment of what has become known as “ObamaCare” is adding new customers to the rolls of the insured by making private insurance mandatory and providing taxpayer subsidies to those who can’t get coverage through their employer or public assistance. As we have seen, this “reform” has actually led to health care costs rising substantially above the inflation rate—with no relief in sight. The Bronze and Silver options in the government market saddle the working poor with deductibles and co-pays they can’t afford to pay. The few decent union plans still around are subject to a hefty tax penalty.
The NNU nurses favor adopting Canadian style single-payer where the government would replace insurance company gate-keepers. The government monopoly of payments would give some leverage in negotiating prices with doctors, hospitals and drug companies. Canada spends somewhat less than America on health care and has better health outcomes.
This is a substantial reform that deserves our support. But it is not a complete solution. It still leaves intact health care as a commodity controlled by the medical-drug capitalists rather than a social right to best available care at reasonable cost for all.
The slogan often advanced by single-payer advocates—Medicare for All—rings hollow to those of us enrolled in Medicare. The AMA initially fought Medicare—but then quickly figured out that they would get millions of new customers backed by government deep pockets. This partial reform has contributed to inflated costs of medicine.
The billing was kept private from the beginning. Now there is a huge privatized sector—Part C, the so-called Medicare Advantage plans–that drain more public funds than traditional Medicare. My Part B premium deducted from my Social Security isn’t going up next year—but only because my Social Security payment is frozen. Some deductibles and coinsurance are rising.
Medicare doesn’t pay all medical expenses. The premium for my Medigap “F” plan from Blue Cross will rise to 308 dollars a month. Along with my Part B deduction this reasonably complete coverage will devour nearly forty percent of my Social Security—and, like nearly half of all retirees, that’s my sole regular source of income. It’s not something I wish for younger people.
While single-payer would be a worthwhile transitional improvement a far better permanent solution would take the British National Health Service as a model. The socialized medicine won by the British Labor Party provides all medical, dental, vision, and mental health services, along with prescription drugs, glasses, hearing aids, and all other devices needed, at no out of pocket cost to users. It’s financed out of general government revenues. It works well for little more than half what is spent in the USA.
Neither single-payer nor socialized medicine will be achieved through the present two party system. That is even more true about the climate crisis that requires a massive economic restructuring leading to a head on confrontation with the bosses and bankers.
The nurses should be emulated as well as praised for their actions in the street. They were early supporters of the now dormant Labor Party. I hope they will become convinced once more that building a working class party that can contest for power is literally a life and death question.
* Just as was done on the eve of the Paris Climate Summit, there will be demonstrations at its conclusion this Saturday in just about every country except where socialist presidents have banned them. You can get more information, available in three languages, here. In Kansas City, there will be a gathering at the Nichols Fountain, 47&Main, 2PM, Saturday, December 12.
* The jury came close to being hung but finally delivered a split verdict in the trial of Don Blankenship who was aptly described in the Guardian, “the ‘outlaw’ former coal executive and enemy of environmentalists.” We might add deadly enemy of coal miners, scofflaw of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and sworn foe of the United Mine Workers. Blankenship was convicted of conspiracy in safety violations leading to the deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April, 2010. Incredibly, this is only a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year. The jury couldn’t agree to convict on two related felony charges.
* The Arizona Star reported, “Union miners rallied Tuesday afternoon at Asarco’s Tucson headquarters to protest what they say are unfair contract negotiating tactics by the copper-mining company. The United Steelworkers, the lead among eight labor unions representing about 2,000 Asarco workers, said Asarco has announced its intent to unilaterally implement the company’s ‘last, best and final’ contract proposal on Tuesday, calling the move illegal.”’ Asarco is owned by notoriously anti-union mining giant Grupo Mexico. Their “offer” included a wage freeze, cuts in pensions, and curtailment of bonuses. There will be a January Labor Board hearing on the unions’ unfair labor practice charges.
* Commenting on the richest of the recent Big Three contracts, Ford said they expect increased labor costs will be below the rate of inflation.
* David Cay Johnston’s opinion piece on the Aljazeera America site, The wealthiest dozen Americans own more than the bottom half, is worth a read.
That’s all for this week.
Check out our digest of news stories about working class and climate issues, posted Monday-Friday by 9AM Central. on our companion Labor Advocate blog.
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