By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
On Jan. 29, State Rep. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) met his counterpart in Congress — U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit — at a daylong conference on building a movement for “single-payer” health care. Dembrow is a leader of American Federation of Teachers-Oregon; Conyers is the son of a United Auto Workers union representative. Both are sponsors of legislation that would take private insurance companies out of the center of the health care system — by setting up a public insurance system to pay for basic health services.
Conyers’ “Medicare for All” proposal in Congress, HR 676, was kept out of the official debate on health care reform in 2009. But the bill that did become law, the Affordable Care Act, allows states to set up their own single payer systems. Dembrow’s bill, which he expected to introduce early this month, would do that.
The Oregon Single Payer Conference, held at a church in downtown Portland, drew 400 attendees from around the state — twice as many as organizers expected. And 50 of those attended a workshop about the special role organized labor could play in bringing about a single payer system.
Union health and welfare trusts are a working model of what a single payer system would look like, said workshop co-chair Tom Leedham, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 206. Because union trusts are mostly self-insured, they provide a high-quality benefit at a price that employers can’t match.
“All the money goes into one pot, out of which we pay claims,” Leedham said. That’s how a single payer system would work. While union health trusts may rent a provider network from Blue Cross, Leedham said, and may pay a private company to administer claims, no union trustee collects a salary or makes a profit off the trust. The trust is run to benefit all members and their families, and no questions are asked about pre-existing conditions or any other insurance company loophole.
Hundreds of locals, central labor councils, and national unions have endorsed the single payer idea, said fellow workshop co-chair Mark Dudzic, national coordinator of the group Labor Campaign for Single Payer Health Care. They’ve done so for pragmatic as well as principled reasons.
Health benefits are the most contentious item in bargaining union contracts. And paying the ever-rising cost of health care burns up money that could otherwise go to wage increases or other benefits. A single payer system would take health care off the bargaining table. It would make health care a birthright for every American, Dudzic said, and deliver the universal health care that every other rich industrial country has achieved.