Health care reform tops labor's legislative agenda

Controlling health care costs topped the list of legislative priorities approved by the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board Dec. 13. That ranking was reaffirmed by AFL-CIO officials from Oregon, Washington, California and Nevada at a meeting in Portland Dec. 16, as leaders shared strategies for a coordinated labor agenda in the Western States.

"Health care reform is the number one challenge for our labor movement at the state level," said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt. "No one can reasonably expect any meaningful action from the U.S. Congress to control costs or move toward universal health coverage in the near future. In the meantime, health care costs are killing us at the bargaining table and forcing more unrepresented workers to go without coverage. So it's up to us to take on this issue at the state level. We'll bring reforms to our State Legislature and, if necessary, take them to the ballot in 2004."

The Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board identified two short-term reforms that it feels would be most effective in reducing and controlling health care costs for insured workers.

1) Force drug companies to provide fair prices for prescriptions drugs. Creation of a prescription drug bulk purchasing entity would enable public and private health plans to leverage lower prices from the pharmaceutical industry, whose pricing is notoriously sensitive to the size and power of its buyers.

For example, the federal government pays for its Veterans Administration hospital patients less than half of what an uninsured individual is charged for the same prescription drugs and 36 percent less than what most union health plans have to pay, the state labor federation said.

2) Get employers like Wal-Mart to start paying their fair share for the health care costs of working families.

Employers like Wal-Mart force their workers to go without health insurance or seek their health care from taxpayer-supported programs. Unfortunately, it is not possible to simply pass a law to require such employers to provide health insurance for their workers because of federal preemptions in this area. But states can use tax policy to get employers to do the right thing, the state labor federation said.

It suggests an employer-paid payroll tax of 1.5 percent of payroll would be sufficient to guarantee fully-funded health care for all children in Oregon up to the age of 21. Such a reform would level the playing field between good employers who already provide such support for their workers and those who don't, and it would take pressure off of labor at the bargaining table to come up with the extra money to cover the premiums for full-family coverage, the state labor federation said.

This two-pronged approach could reduce or off-load up to 20 percent of the premium costs now borne by employers and union trust funds that are providing full family health benefits, the state labor federation said. And, with all employers participating in a reasonably-priced system, it will reinforce the principle of employer responsibility for funding health care for their workers, which has been the mainstay of the health care system in the United States for more than 50 years.

Also on the Oregon AFL-CIO's list of legislative priorities are effective economic recovery policies that deliver good jobs for working families, protections for the right of workers to organize freely and bargain collectively for fair pay and benefits, more help for jobless families during the recession and fair and adequate funding for public services.

Specific proposals will include:

* Extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, more than 8,000 of whom exhausted their benefits at the end of 2002;

* Repeal corporate tax breaks to restore balance in the state's tax system and provide sorely-needed funding for schools and state services;

* Protect the right to organize by prohibiting the use of public funds to interfere with workers' choice of representation;

* Promote economic recovery by accelerating and expanding bridge and road repairs;

* Foster living-wage jobs in rural Oregon by combining state and federally-funded initiatives for sustainable forestry and watershed protection with a commitment to high-skilled, year-round jobs in such programs;

* Protect good jobs by defending the minimum wage and prevailing wage laws.

The Oregon AFL-CIO will dig deeper into its legislative agenda and the strategies it will need to be successful for 2003 at an all-day legislative conference Saturday, Jan. 11, at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 Training Center, 2379 NE 178th Ave., Portland.

The conference, organized by the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) of the University of Oregon, goes from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Registration is $75 per person, which covers tuition, materials, lunch and refreshments. To register, call LERC at 541-346-5054.

January 3, 2003 issue

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