January 19, 2007 Volume 108 Number 2

Wyden touts universal health coverage plan at business summit

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

At a Jan. 4 summit of Oregon business leaders, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) presented his proposal for universal health coverage, which would relieve businesses of the burden of finding and providing coverage to workers — and eliminate union health trusts.

“You can no longer keep plopping one Band-Aid after another on this system,” Wyden said. “Health costs are hitting our country like a wrecking ball.”

Under the Wyden plan, which he plans to introduce in Congress this month, most individuals would be required to buy insurance, though employers would also contribute part of the cost — and would be required to turn whatever they are now paying for insurance into a raise to employees. Premiums for full-family coverage average $956 a month, so many workers would get a sizable raise if the Wyden proposal passes. But most of that would then go to pay for their insurance premiums.

Households earning as much as four times the poverty level would get some assistance in paying premiums, in the form of a tax deduction or outright grant.

Health plans would have to be equivalent in benefits to those now offered to federal employees, and would cover an annual physical examination.

Some individuals would be exempt from the requirement to buy health insurance, including those who are covered by Medicare, the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, or the Indian Health Service. Individuals who oppose medicine for religious reasons also would be exempt.

The Wyden bill would most likely do away with joint labor-management health trusts. Single and multi-employer health plans to which employers are now contributing under current union contracts would remain in existence until the contracts expire (or up to seven years). But after that, employers would be off the hook, except that they would contribute from 2 to 25 percent of the cost of their employees’ individual premiums, depending on the size of the business. About 10 million people are currently covered by joint union-management health trusts. Wyden’s bill doesn’t specify what would happen to the billions of dollars in assets held by labor-management health trusts.

Wyden told the NW Labor Press his proposal has benefits for unions. He said he wants union negotiators to come away from the bargaining table with increased wages and pension contributions — instead of the situation now, where everything gets gobbled up by increased health care costs.

Also, under the Wyden proposal, no longer would some employers contribute to health costs while others shirk; under the Wyden plan all employers would contribute a small fraction of the cost on a sliding scale. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees would pay 2 percent. Businesses with 200 employees would pay 17 percent.

Individuals’ health insurance contributions would be deducted from wages by employers, and along with employer contributions,would go to the federal treasury, which would then pay the insurers.

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain said he commends Wyden for stepping up to the plate with a proposal. But he, and others, questioned how viable Wyden’s system would be without measures to contain costs.

Wyden said costs would be restrained because individuals would be better shoppers and it would be easier to compare policies. State clearinghouses would provide information to help people decide which health plan to buy, and insurance companies would be required to charge the same price to all, without regard to age, race, occupation, pre-existing health condition or genetic predisposition.

Wyden’s proposal is similar to one proposed for the state of California by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that would require all uninsured residents to purchase health insurance (see article above). Under Schwarzenegger’s proposal, employers with 10 or more employees who do not provide health insurance for their workers will be required to pay into a state health care fund.

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