By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
Labor Tribune Staff
Washington (PAI)–Union leaders across America and here in St. Louis and Southern Illinois cheered the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on June 28 upholding the comprehensive national health care law.
But the National Nurses United (NNU), which sent a visible contingent to join the crowd outside the court, said the justices’ 5-4 ruling would not stop NNU’s drive for universal government-run single-payer national health insurance, also known as “Medicare for All.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka echoed that sentiment.
The court majority upheld the key section of the law, which Democratic President Barack Obama maneuvered through the then-Democratic Congress on party-line votes in 2010. After much negotiation and some Obama administration arm-twisting, the labor movement also backed the law, even though it would tax so-called “high-value” health insurance, starting in 2018.
The key section the court upheld is the law’s order to buy health insurance, or, if people refuse, to pay an extra tax, via the IRS, to cover the uninsured.
The law does not flatly force people to buy insurance, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court majority. But the practical effect of the law and the court’s decision, experts said, is given the choice between buying insurance or paying extra to the IRS, a majority will buy insurance. One expert estimated only four million people would decline.
Union leaders hailed that either-or choice, and the court’s reaffirmation of the law, as the way to expand health insurance coverage for millions, though not everyone.
STILL WORK TO BE DONE
The ruling “means we can continue moving full speed ahead to implement and build upon” the law, said Trumka. “We have no illusion the destination has been reached, and we are more committed than ever to the hard work necessary to achieve our dream of quality health care for all.”
He particularly praised the court for letting 105 million people benefit from the law’s elimination of lifetime limits on insurance coverage, its elimination of the “doughnut hole” in seniors’ prescription drug coverage and its decision that “insurance companies will not be able to deny coverage due to pre-existing conditions, charge women more or drop coverage for those who get sick.”
But he also warned states must establish exchanges by 2014, as the law requires, to help cover the uninsured or participate in a government run one. That includes the – GOP-run – states that stalled and sued to kill the law, Trumka noted.
However, creation of a Missouri insurance exchange has already divided state Republicans. While Representative Chris Molendorp (R-Raymore) said the state should begin research on developing such an exchange (he introduced legislation last year to do so), incoming House Majority Leader Tim Jones (R-Eureka) said he wants to wait for the outcome of the November election, noting that Mitt Romney, if he wins, has said he would repeal the law entirely.
Other state and national Missouri Republican political leadership were, predictably, highly critical.
But for Missouri’s Democrats, the reaction was positive:
• Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said in a statement released immediately after the ruling that his office is reviewing the ruling “so that we can understand exactly what it means for Missouri.
“This ruling has significant complexities and implications for families, health care providers and insurers in our state…I’m committed to working collaboratively with citizens, businesses, medical providers and the legislature to move forward in a way that works best for families in our state.”
• Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster: “We now have to work hard to implement key aspects of the law in the legislatures across the nation. The law doesn’t create the health care exchanges (a key cost control aspect of the new law); if they are going to be created, it’s the state’s responsibility to do so, not the federal government.”
• U.S. Representative Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis) said, “This is not a political triumph, but a victory for the American people. Insurance premiums will not increase, and health care costs for all of us will continue to be reined in. Most importantly, tens of millions of Americans will gain health insurance. That is the true victory.”
• U.S. Representative Russ Carnahan (D-St. Louis) said, “I applaud the decision which echoes a majority of Americans who believe that healthcare coverage is both a right and a responsibility. Because of his courage and the hard work of President Obama, American families will be able to protect children with healthcare until they are able to buy coverage for themselves…”
• U.S. Congressman Jerry Costello (D-IL) said, “This is a very significant ruling for the American people. As I have said before, the Affordable Care Act is not a perfect law, but it is an important step forward in making sure all Americans have access to health insurance and improving our health care system. It has had tremendous positive impacts already, eliminating pre-existing condition restrictions, allowing young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26, and making prescription drugs more affordable for our seniors. Now that the Supreme Court has found it constitutional, moving forward, we need to concentrate on implementing the rest of the law as efficiently as possible.”
• AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka suggested something better: “A simple indisputably constitutional solution is to allow Americans of all ages to buy into an improved Medicare program. We believe every baby in America – whether rich or poor – deserves the same standard of quality care, and we will keep moving forward until we make this a reality.”
• Teachers President Randi Weingarten: “This law puts healthcare within reach for working families, keeps our communities healthier, and ensures Americans can get the treatment they need, when they need it, without battling big insurance companies.”
• Communications Workers of America called the court’s ruling “a big victory for the 99%. The Affordable Care Act is an important first step toward true health care reform.” They praised President Obama for working “to bring together consumers, insurers, providers, health care facilities, and employers.”
• Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, not only praised the court but said “the GOP, including presumed presidential nominee Mitt Romney, wants to go backwards and make it harder and more expensive for workers to get health care. For more than two years, Republicans like (House) Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Paul Ryan and Romney have put their political careers ahead of working Americans struggling to afford and keep their healthcare.” b said.
• Steelworkers President Leo Gerard “While we celebrate this ruling and applaud the court for standing up for justice and fairness” in health care, “we know this is just the beginning. Republican leaders Mitt Romney, Boehner and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell want to take us back to a place where people can be denied coverage because they’ve been sick, where tens of millions of Americans have no access to health care, and where our elderly citizens have to decide between putting food on the table and buying their medicine. Let me tell you: We are not going back.”
Gerard’s union, along with NNU, led the unsuccessful fight for single-payer government-run health care. Twenty-one unions backed that during the 2010 health care battle.
TO FIGHT FOR SINGLE PAYER
“We cannot afford to go backward, but that is what Romney and the Republican leadership in Congress would do,” Trumka warned. “Their prescriptions would not expand coverage or control costs. Instead, they would shift costs to working families, retirees and the states.”
NNU however, vowed to continue its campaign for single-payer government-run health care. That came from both its official statement from co-president Jean Ross and in interviews with activists holding their big “Medicare for all” banner in front of the court. They were the sole visible group of unionists among the thousands of people jamming the plaza, though several SEIU staffers were there, too.
Much of the crowd let out a big cheer when the court’s ruling was announced in tweets from reporters inside the courtroom. Dissent came from the Tea Party contingent, as several vowed to refuse to pay the health care tax.
“Our position isn’t changed. We still want single payer for all,” said Judy Alba of the D.C. Nurses Association, an NNU affiliate that represents nurses at several area hospitals. “We can pay for it through a tax on stock transactions. That’ll raise $350 billion a year.”
Local leaders herald decision
• St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay: “This is an outstanding decision. It will now bring health care to millions of uninsured and underinsured people. Now companies have finality in knowing their costs going forward.”
• Charlie Dooley, St. Louis County executive: “They did the right thing. President Obama was looking out for working people when he pushed for the health care law’s passage. The Supreme Court has validated his efforts.”
•Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary-treasurer, St. Louis Building Trades Council: “The Court made the right decision. Given the opposition’s talk about this being a ‘job-killing’ law, not a single company has said they would not be hiring people because of Obamacare. This will be a job-creating law, more than four million by most assessments.”
• Don Brown, business manager, Bricklayers Local 1: “Before this law was passed, health care costs were going up anywhere from 12 to 20 percent and more a year. Don’t believe the propaganda being put out that it’s going to increase costs; the truth is, it will eventually reduce costs for everyone.”
• Joe Hunt, retired general president, Ironworkers International Union (a member of St. Louis Ironworkers Local 396) “Union members everywhere will be better off. The Republican scare tactics have already begun. Our members need to understand that their health care plans are safe, that no one is going to be forced to change plans like the Republicans in Congress are charging.”
• John Goffstein, noted labor attorney: “It’s great law, that will move America in the right direction.”
• Mark Connors, assistant directing business representative, Machinists District 9: “This will be great for our members. It’s a fair law that will cover all Americans. The Republicans should be ashamed of themselves because the mandate for everyone to have health care was a Republican idea. Just because President Obama included it in his law, they jumped in to muddy the waters and try and make it look bad. It’s a fair law with a fair system to pay for it.”
• Tadas Kicielinski, president, Iron Workers District Council of St. Louis and Vicinity: “This was a great decision by the Supreme Court that will ensure that companies provide health care to their workers. The Republicans show their true colors by fighting it and wanting to repeal it. It’s just like their efforts to kill unemployment insurance for working Americans. What would happen if that came to pass? On election day every union member, every American drawing unemployment insurance to feed their families should remember what the Republicans tried to do to them.”
• Vince Schoemehl, former St. Louis mayor, president, Grand Center: “We have a clear choice in November at the polls on whether to vote Democratic or Republican. Voters should remember one simple thing: If you want health care coverage, vote to re-elect Obama; if you don’t want health care protection, vote Republican.”
• Tom McNeil, business manager, Iron Workers Local 396: “This is a positive for labor and the Democrats and working people in America. It’s about time! Everyone American should have health care. We’re the richest nation in the world and yet most other countries are way ahead of us on providing health care to all their citizens.”