In a historic vote more than 60 years in the making, the U.S. House of Representatives late Sunday night voted to approve (220-211) what AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calls a ”momentous step toward comprehensive health care.”
The bill survived a $100 million lie-and-distortion campaign by Big Insurance to kill it—the same kind of tactics these groups have aimed at health care proposals for six decades. Trumka says the bill is not “a baby step or half measure,” but a solid step forward to set our country on a path to health care that actually works for working families.
After personally calling dozens of House members on Friday, Trumka spent the weekend meeting with House members to firm up votes in favor of the bill. On Capitol Hill today, Trumka joined two workers—among the millions in this nation—for whom passage of this health care bill means the difference between food and health care.
One of the workers, Liz Stender, lost her job in August while four months pregnant and described how she cannot afford to pay for COBRA, which extends her health coverage. Now working part-time, Stender, a member of Working America, the AFL-CIO community affiliate, won’t be able to afford health coverage for herself or her small daughter—and today’s passage of the health care bill literally means the difference between groceries and insurance. Judy Cato, a member of the Alliance for Retired Americans, who also joined Trumka, described how the legislation will allow her and other Medicare beneficiaries to get mammograms and other preventive screenings without co-payments.
In a letter Friday to House members urging passage of the bill, Trumka wrote, “the bill is not perfect.”
But we are realistic enough to know it’s time for the deliberations to stop and for progress to begin. And we are idealistic enough to believe this is an opportunity to change history we can’t afford to miss.
Union Members Made the Difference
Throughout the health care battle, mobilized union members provided a strong and visible counterpoint to the insurance giants’ television and lobbying blitz. Union members made more than 4 million phone calls and sent more than 1 million e-mail messages to lawmakers. Leaders flew to Washington, D.C., and visited members of Congress in their districts, making more than 10,000 contacts.
In addition, canvassers from Working America talked to more than 210,000 people about health care at their front doors, generating 30,000 health care petition signatures, 31,000 phone calls to Congress, 40,000 e-mail messages and 75,000 hand-written letters urging lawmakers to pass health care reform.
The contacts not only helped win approval of health care reform, they improved the bill and ensured that its financing would be fairer. Pressure from working families and visits and phone calls from union leaders to lawmakers eliminated 85 percent of a tax on health care benefits that would have slammed working families—union and nonunion. That same activism helped strengthen the bill’s employer responsibility provisions by requiring employers to shoulder more of their fair share.
In the days leading up to the vote, union members (see video) and leaders were on Capitol Hill and at representatives’ home district offices urging wavering lawmakers to back the health care bill.
In Fresno, Calif., union members rallied outside Rep. Jim Costa’s (D) office on Friday. Later, Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, flew to Washington to meet with fence-sitting California lawmakers. Yesterday, Costa announced he would vote in favor of health care reform.
AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney was on the phones, too. Several Democratic lawmakers expressed concern about the bill’s language on abortions. Sweeney, a devout Catholic, talked to the representatives about the Catholic Church’s long history of fighting for social and economic justice and how providing health care for 32 million additional people follows that teaching.
While union members attempted to persuade the undecided, they also warned lawmakers they would be held accountable if they turned their backs on working families and voted against health care reform.
On Friday in Pennsylvania, Rep. Jason Altmire (D), who courted and won union support for his election, announced he was voting against the bill. Yesterday, several dozen United Steelworkers (USW) members and retirees staged a sit-in at his Aliquippa office. Said Rick Galiano, president of USW Local 9305 in Beaver Falls, Pa.:
We busted our humps working for Jason Altmire and many other politicians who time and time again promise us that they’ll work for us and working families across America. We are tired of the broken promises. We helped Congressman Altmire win this seat because he vowed he would vote for health insurance reform. We’re here today urging him to keep that promise.
Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y), who narrowly won his last election—union family votes put him over the top—announced Thursday he would vote against the bill. On Friday, New York State AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes and 20 other New York labor leaders sent Arcuri a letter saying his health care vote will have consequences.
Our members look for elected officials who have the courage to stand up to lies, distortions and political scare tactics. Your vote this Sunday will tell them what kind of elected official you are. Please do not disappoint them or us.
Yesterday, Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes and more than two dozen Bay State union leaders urged Rep. Stephen Lynch (D) to reconsider his announced “No” vote. They wrote:
If Congress passes this legislation, together, we can continue to strengthen consumer protections, increase market competition, and ensure that insurance companies no longer have a stranglehold on consumers. If Congress doesn’t pass the bill, none of this is possible. All we are left with is the status quo.
Congressman, we will not be able to explain to the working women and men of our union why you voted against their interests.
What Does the Bill Do?
In a video message to working families, Trumka says that at its core, the bill
means long-term health security—and that’s the most important thing for your future, and your children and their children.
Among other benefits, the health care reform bill bans coverage denials or higher rates due to pre-existing conditions and outlaws the practice of insurers dropping coverage when someone files a claim or is diagnosed with a condition requiring expensive treatment. It covers an additional 32 million people, or 95 percent of the population.
The bill ends gender discrimination in setting insurance rates and establishes a procedure to review insurance premium increases and take action against unreasonable rate hikes.
It also makes improvements in the original Senate-passed version, such as not placing the cost of the bill on the backs of working families.
- It eliminates 85 percent of the tax on benefits that would have penalized working families.
- It substitutes in its place a progressive tax on the wealthy that requires Medicare contributions be paid on unearned income for the first time.
- It increases subsidies to purchase health insurance for low- and moderate-income people.
On the benefits tax, Trumka says:
We continue to think the excise tax is the wrong way to contain costs, but the changes included in the corrections bill cut the tax back deeply, so that it now eliminates 85 percent of the tax for all working families—both nonunion and union—whose health benefits cost more due to factors beyond their control.
The bill also cuts brand-name drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries by 50 percent in 2011 and closes the Medicare prescription drug “donut hole” completely by 2020. Stella Johnson, a retired school teacher and member of the Alliance for Retired Americans, is one of 3 million seniors who each year falls in the donut hole.
At a press conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week, Johnson said her prescriptions become even more costly when she is forced to pay full price as a result of the donut hole.
It is very hard for me to make ends meet. I have to choose between taking the medicines I need and paying my monthly bills. Because my prescriptions cost so much, I fall behind on some of my bills. When I get hit with late penalties, things get even worse.
The health care bill will help seniors like me who struggle every day to afford the prescriptions they must have.
Trumka says the bill is a “solid foundation” and the union movement will “continue our efforts to improve our health care system.”
We need to do more to bring employers into the system. We need to do more to bring down costs—and one of the best ways to do that is with a public health insurance option. And it will be critical to build on the reforms in the bill designed to change the way health care is delivered, so that we reward value rather than volume.
The House last night actually voted on two health care reform bills. The first was the reform bill passed by the Senate late last year. That bill passed 219-212. Then the House passed a series of fixes to the Senate bill, known as reconciliation. That bill passed 220-211.
The reconciliation bill now goes to the Senate, but this time Republican obstructionists will not be able to filibuster the bill because it will only require a simply majority to pass.
This post originally appeared on the AFL-CIO blog.