Tuesday, December 26, 2006

State of Emergency -- The Right to Health Care

Cross Posted from diary posted on Raising Kaine

A thoughtful article in the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Mother Jones magazine, by JoAnn Wypijewski, discusses the difference between the concept of "affordable health care" and health care as a right.


The author recounts shocking statistics of the demise of union mines in Virginia, noting that in the 1980s there were hundreds of mines in Virginia and 17,000 union miners, but that after the successful Pittston strike of 1989 their victory proved hollow as

Pittston and other mine operators began declaring bankruptcy, reneging on their contracts, selling their assets or reopening under new names, offering similar wages but no benefits ... Retiree health and welfare had been a centerpiece of the strike; the corporate backlash threw down a choice: the old folks or your jobs. Now workers from shuttered union mines are loath to organize their new job sites because they could never win the old-style comprehensive retirement benefits, which their former employers are still legally obligated to pay them so long as they don't work under another union contract. Union mines, meanwhile, won't hire experienced workers who are a few years shy of being vested because that would mean inheriting retirement obligations ... Lifetime health benefits, which nationwide keep 60,000 umwa retirees and their families alive, have become a rope for slowly strangling the union.

As a result of the growth of non-union mines the health of the workers and their families has suffered.

Statistics tell the tale:

According to Sparkle Bonds of the Virginia Black Lung Association, miners are getting sicker younger—in their late 30s or 40s rather than in their 60s or 70s—because of higher concentrations of dust and less stringent oversight ... The umwa's president, Cecil Roberts, can preach up a storm for the union cause, but he doesn't see the people as a whole getting much of a break from the economics of lowered expectations without nationalized health insurance ... But even if the Democrats want to make health care a right ... as Roberts would dryly note later, "they can't do anything so long as there's this war."

The author recounts Jim Webb's visit to Wise County, where he

moved so fluidly from vulnerability to vulnerability ... that it seemed natural when a student asked him, "So are you saying you're going to move toward socialized medicine?"

Webb said that growing up and then serving in the military ... made him open to an "efficient government-administered insurance system." He could have added that his touchstone is itself being eroded by war. The immense needs of the wounded are careening toward the wall of limited resources. Veterans Affairs treated 23 percent more wounded in the first quarter of 2006 than the Bush team had estimated for the entire year.

Ms. Wypijewski concludes that the question of health care will turn ultimately on how the government can justify a costly war while maintaining that providing health care for all is beyond its means, but she notes also that we cannot maintain a war economy and hope to provide for universal health coverage.

In the midst of all the talk of last chance surges and the congenital idiocy of some of Virginia's elected representatives one of the most pressing issues in this country cannot and should not be forgotten. This article points out the flaw in merely advocating "affordable health care" and instead notes that health care coverage should be treated as a right. The only solution to the type of behavior illustrated in her article -- the companies that go bankrupt and then return in different guises without benefits or pesky union interference, the companies that hire people as "part time" workers at 38 hours a week so as to avoid having to pay them benefits, the companies that seek out cheap undocumented immigrants for whom they often do not pay workers' compensation insurance and whom they can count on not to push their rights when injured -- is to establish a system of universal health care coverage.

Lawmakers should not shy away from this discussion as they have in the past. First, the right to health care should be treated as a given. Second, legislation establishing this right should be packaged in such a way as to prevent companies from being able to opt out of it through the methods described above. I'd like to know what thoughts people have on this and what they would suggest as a way to address this growing problem.

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