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Affordable Health Insurance Reform Loses Union Support

Armen Hareyan's picture

Labor unions, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and AFL-CIO, are often accused of being biased towards Democrats. In fact, they have been strong supporters of President Barack Obama's agenda. Even with their declining influence, organized labor is still an important interest group for the Democratic party. According to them, providing affordable health insurance to more Americans should be one of the nation's highest priorities. With a significant percentage of the public skeptical of healthcare reform, union backing has been essential.

However, it appears that the largest unions in this country are withdrawing their support for the Senate's legislation. Labor heads like SEIU president Andy Stern are frustrated with recent developments in the Senate. In order to appease moderates, the public option advocated by the unions has been eliminated from the bill. Unions believe that such a government-run health insurance plan will cover currently uninsured Americans, as well as result in affordable health insurance through increased competition for private health insurance companies.

The public option has been controversial from the start. It was jettisoned in order to garner needed swing votes from senators such as Joe Lieberman. Organized labor grudgingly accepted a proposed alternative, which would allow some people as young as 55 to buy into Medicare. Unfortunately for them, the independent senator was also against that compromise. Many liberals, including Howard Dean, are angry that an increasingly unacceptable bill that makes few people happy is being pushed through--not to mention that reliably Democratic constituencies are being sold out for a former Dem that jumped ship and campaigned against the current president during last year's elections.

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Stern, meanwhile, is urging President Obama to be more hands-on in the health care debate. Although Obama pledged to make an attempt at reaching common ground with the opposition, recent encouragement of the Senate to pass reform were too generic. After all, if the president is unwilling to stand up for the affordable health insurance principles he campaigned on, why should politicians up for re-election in 2010 do so?

Several advocacy groups have given their endorsement to the Senate bill, justifying their decision by pointing towards existing improvements that would make affordable health insurance more accessible to the uninsured; these provisions include a ban on gender rating (when women are charged higher premiums than men for similar coverage), denying coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions, and the establishment of a regulated health insurance market with federal subsidies. Still, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka claims that while he, like Stern and other union heads, acknowledges the strides made by the Senate's bill, it is effectively a giveaway to insurance companies and inadequate as it stands.

What do the unions suggest as the next step? They are not giving up on their fight for the programs they consider essential to provide affordable health insurance. Both major unions have presented the House of Representatives version, which includes a public option, as the ideal of healthcare reform. Although they are pessimistic that the Senate will pass a bill more amenable to their interests, labor unions are pinning their hopes on the subsequent committee process. There, the slightly more freewheeling House and the relatively conservative Senate will combine their bills in order to create a final version that will be sent for President Obama's signature. If the public option fails to survive in committee, unions will have a tough decision to make regarding their support for the final legislation.

Written by Yamileth Medina
VitalOne Health Plans Direct, LLC.