Health Insurance is a Battlefield

Western Mass. Medicare for All presented testimony at a recent “Listening Session” for local legislators on March 15th in Amherst. One of our speakers was Jon Weissman, Co-convener of WMM4A, past coordinator of Western Mass. Jobs with Justice, and a long-time labor and community activist. Here is his testimony:

The costs of health insurance, prescription drugs, and hospital charges keep rising, and these costs are increasingly shifted to workers, creating an unsustainable situation for workers.

The urgency for reform is clear every day at the bargaining table, where unions seek to preserve the benefits workers have earned, but these high costs help to sustain a climate of concessionary bargaining, pushing wages down, diverting potential wage and pension improvements to the pockets of the insurance companies and their high-salaried executives, causing bitter strikes and lockouts, triggering attacks on public sector workers and retirees, and shifting more and more of the costs onto the backs of workers.  Health insurance is a battlefield.

When union workers across the country sit down to negotiate better wages and benefits and working conditions (think Stop & Shop right now), they are bargaining with the Specter of Wal-Mart.  That company offers a meager, high deductible, full-timers-only health plan, which most of its employees can’t enroll in or can’t afford to enroll in.

In particular, unions representing lower-wage workers face an impossible task of improving both wages and health care benefits.

Even non-profit union-sponsored health and welfare funds are not protected from these cost pressures and the resulting acceleration of the “race to the bottom.”  And then there’s the Affordable Care Act’s excise tax on our so-called “Cadillac” plans.

Most U.S. workers with health insurance get it from their employers or the employer of someone in their household.  A workplace benefit, not a right.  But as insurance costs have grown, fewer employers are providing it. The drop in retiree coverage is even worse—most employers no longer or never did provide retiree coverage.  

The current situation fosters an insidious politics of resentment.

It threatens our jobs and our economy.  All other industrialized countries provide comprehensive coverage to all citizens as a fundamental human right, putting U.S. manufacturing and other employers and workers at a global competitive disadvantage.

Employers that provide health insurance are competing against companies in countries that have universal health coverage.  And they’re also competing against nonunion employers in this country that don’t provide health benefits.

Instead of shifting costs, we need to shift the battlefield.  We need a political solution.  

And while single-payer will be a big cost saver, ultimately it is about enacting the values of a Commonwealth.