Oregon AFL-CIO opposes health care for all measure

As the Nov. 5 mail election approaches, leaders of the Oregon AFL-CIO find themselves in the odd position of wanting universal health care, but opposing an Oregon ballot measure that would set up such a system.

The initiative, Measure 23 on the ballot, would create a public body to pay all the costs of health care for all Oregonians. Coverage would include prescription drugs, mental health, long-term care, dental and vision, and alternative medical practices. A new employer payroll tax - and increased personal income taxes - would fund the program.

After studying the measure and holding conversations with its backers, the state labor federation decided to oppose it for practical and strategic reasons.

"We've always supported single-payer," said Ken Allen, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Oregon Council 75, "but I can't recommend this to my members because of the way it shifts the costs to them."

Under the measure's tax formula, many employers who now pay for health care would save millions of dollars, but workers would have a new tax to pay, and there would be no guarantee that employers would turn their windfall into a wage increase to help them pay the tax, union officials say.

Tax rates would be set by a 15-member board (five appointed by the governor and 10 elected).

The tax would vary based on income and dependents, with those making under 150 percent of the poverty level exempt from the tax, and families with children paying less. A single parent working full-time at $6.50 an hour would pay nothing, while a childless couple earning a combined $49,000 a year would likely pay a little over $2,000 a year.

For the average individual income taxpayer, rates would likely be about 6.5 percent of taxable income. For workers who are currently uninsured, this would be a good deal; for most workers, union leaders say, it would not.

At the Oregon AFL-CIO convention last June, union officials said middle-income rank-and-file members whose employers pay 100 percent of their health insurance premiums would be the big losers, as most likely would workers who co-pay on only a portion of their premiums.

Plus, they say, although the plan would reduce administrative costs, it would have little ability to control other factors contributing to rising health care costs.

Details of the measure are complex; its text runs 16 pages (available online at www.sos.state.or.us/elections).

Oregon AFL-CIO Research and Education Director Lynn-Marie Crider says the state labor federation also opposes Measure 23 on strategic grounds. A poll conducted by the Service Employees International Union suggested that the measure will likely be defeated at the polls by about three-to-one. A similar measure in California, which had union support, was defeated by a similar margin in 1994.

Such a sound defeat, some union leaders think, could set back the cause, since opponents would use it to argue that the public doesn't support government-mandated universal health care.

"They came to us with the measure already written and asked us for an endorsement," Crider said. "We tried to persuade them that it was bad political strategy."

Every other Western industrialized nation provides universal health care as a basic right, like public education. Crider said the AFL-CIO wants to see universal health care in the United States also, but thinks an incremental approach is the most realistic.

Several unions, such as National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) Branch 82, have voted to endorse Measure 23, but even backers don't expect it to pass. "We support it because we want to get the idea of universal health care out there," said NALC legislative liaison Kevin Card. "This is the beginning of a dialogue."

October 4, 2002 issue

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